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Extra Credits Add to Student Loan Debt

Whether you are in the process of paying back student loans or just beginning to figure out how to pay for college, there is no question it is expensive. The average cost of attending a four-year UW system school, including tuition, fees, room and board and books totals around $17,500 a year. The number of loans students have taken out over the past decade has tripled, and now account for more than a trillion dollars former students must repay. WUWM’s LaToya Dennis has learned about one specific factor that adds to the cost of a college education - students graduating with more credits than needed.Jillian Cross is starting a master’s program this month. She’s one of many 20-somethings, buried in debt from student loans.

“Too many, I was just actually looking at them the other day freaking out about how I’m going to pay them off,” Cross says.

Dennis: “So how much do you owe?”

“Sixty thousand right now,” Cross says.

Cross graduated from UW-Whitewater last fall with a BA in Spanish. While her major required only 120 credits, Cross took 12 extra.

“Three of the credits were for a remedial class that I had to take my freshman year in math,” Cross says.

Then there was the issue of scheduling.

“There was a class I needed to graduate, it was a requirement, but it was only offered in the fall. So I was actually supposed to graduate in May of 2011, but because the class was only offered in fall and I needed that to graduate so I had to wait,” Cross says.

Cross picked up a few more classes in order to reach full-time status so she would qualify for loans. She needed about $9,000 to cover the cost.

Pamela Tanner is director of Whitewater’s Academic Advising and Exploration Center. She says there are other reasons students end up taking more credits can needed to earn a bachelors degree. For instance, transferring to a different school and changing majors.

“Our office sees about 2,600 students all together because we have more than just freshmen. And out of all those students last year we had 1,000 major changes,” Tanner says.

Tanner says the average Whitewater graduate finishes with 136 credit hours, 16 more than needed. The university created her office not only to boost student retention, but also to advise students early on, so they’re more likely to graduate on time. Still, she admits her office is more concerned about students graduating than with the number of credits they earn.

“We would never tell students not to take a class that they were interested in. We would want students to explore you know the whole gamut of things outside of general education too. So if I’m not a political science major but I’m really digging political science we would say try it out. Cause we don’t really think it’s a waste, nothing’s really a waste. You hear someone way oh you’re wasting those credits…it’s helping them grow and learn,” Tanner says.

If students remain in college too long however, the time can weigh against them, according to Mike Baumgartner. He’s with an organization called Complete College America. It works to increase the number of Americans with college degrees and career certificates.

“We know that the longer people compete the less likely they are to finish. It’s also a matter of cost, both for the state and the institutions to have to cover those students and for the students and their families who have to cover the costs from their side,” Baumgartner says.

Baumgartner says nationally, the standard for a bachelor’s degree use to be 120 credits, but now the median is 136.5. He says in some states, where the requirements and costs have crept up over the years, leaders are searching for ways to minimize the load on students.

“Many states are saying that is a bad thing and passing legislation or policies at the governing board level to reduce the number of credits back down to 60 for an associate’s degree or 120 for a bachelor’s degree unless there are certificate or licensure issues that make it necessary to go beyond that,” Baumgartner says.

The state of Indiana recently passed such legislation while the Florida State University System fines students once they reach a certain number of extra credits. When it comes to the University of Wisconsin System, it has not taken drastic action. System Spokesman David Giroux says students graduating with bachelor degrees during the 2010-2011 school year finished with 137 credits on average—17 more than needed. That’s a decline of only three during the past ten years. Giroux says campuses will continue advising students about the ramifications of changing majors and dropping courses. Meanwhile, Gov. Walker is proposing that students earn credit for work world experience. No matter what happens in the future, those who have already incurred the debt in part due to extra classes are stuck paying it off.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.