Winthrop professors, students surprised by summer tuition hike

adouglas@heraldonline.comMay 31, 2014 

Winthrop University's 2014 commencement ceremonies Saturday, 5-10-2014.

JEFF SOCHKO — Special to the Herald

Some faculty members and students at Winthrop University were surprised by a 40 percent increase in summer tuition this year, prompting the college’s leadership to say it will change the way notification is given in the future.

Winthrop officials published the new tuition rate on the university’s website about 20 days before the first day of registration for summer classes. The website was updated on March 6 and the first summer class met on May 19.

The tuition hike increased the cost of most classes by $363. But the cost of summer school at Winthrop remains one of the lowest for South Carolina colleges and universities.

In light of the confusion for some people on campus, President Jamie Comstock Williamson said she’ll make sure the university announces any future summer increases when tuition rates are announced for spring and fall semesters. The school’s Board of Trustees typically votes in June on whether to increase spring and fall tuition.

Posting summer tuition online this year didn’t result in the information “trickling down as would have been most desired,” Williamson said last week.

The new process will, she said, ensure that faculty and students have the information they need.

Junior chemistry major Tyler Sherman says many students were surprised by the increase when they received tuition bills. Most students don’t check the Winthrop website for tuition rates unless they’ve been notified that the cost has gone up, he said.

Winthrop’s 2014 summer tuition fee is $420 per credit hour. Most classes are three-hour courses for which students pay $1,260.

Last year, students paid $299 per credit hour or $897 for a three-hour class. Until this year, the cost of summer tuition hadn’t gone up in at least eight years.

Sherman, who is taking three summer classes at a total cost of $4,200, said he didn’t realize that tuition changed until his classes started. He’s enrolled in Winthrop’s first summer session, called Maymester.

The increased tuition didn’t hinder his plans, he said, because he’s using loans to pay for college.

Still, Sherman said, other students pay for school out-of-pocket immediately and they need ample time to plan financially. Posting the tuition cost to the website is good but a campus-wide email or message on the university’s Facebook page about the tuition hike would have been better, he said.

Winthrop promoted summer session tuition in various ways and all material pointed students to the website for more information, said Provost Debra Boyd.

“We did exactly what we always do,” she said.

Because tuition hasn’t changed for some time, Sherman said he thinks school officials should have done things differently this year when giving information.

For students who signed up for classes before realizing the new cost, there was no financial penalty to drop the class. In the summer, students can drop courses and receive a full refund up to the first day the class meets. In some cases, the no-penalty drop date is after the first class meeting.

When some students and professors raised concerns about being surprised by the tuition increase, Boyd said she listened and offered the best help she could. She and other school officials realize that many Winthrop students come from families of “modest means,” she said, adding that “we try to do everything we can to accommodate them.”

In some cases, students sought extra help from the university’s financial aid office, she said. And, for those who needed the summer classes to graduate soon, she reminded students that it’s still cheaper to take classes in the summer than in the spring or fall semester.

Winthrop’s spring and fall tuition is the highest of any public college in the state, at $13,430 per year. Clemson University’s tuition –– the second highest –– is $13,054. The next highest tuition rates are $10,838 at The Citadel and $10,816 at the University of South Carolina.

But, compared to other four-year public universities in South Carolina, Winthrop’s summer tuition is one of the lowest. Winthrop’s summer cost is lower than Clemson’s rate of $550 per credit hour and USC’s at $434.

With this year’s increase, Winthrop’s summer tuition is comparable to Lander University’s $421 cost per credit hour, College of Charleston’s $426 per credit hour and The Citadel’s $422 per credit hour.

Winthrop officials said last week that the university needed the tuition hike this summer to keep up with rising operating costs and the statewide market for summer school.

Summer tuition at Winthrop was not affected by recent salary adjustments for university employees, said Ellen Wilder-Byrd, associate vice president and executive director for university relations. Recent pay raises –– including $27,442 for the school’s police chief and $26,192 for Winthrop’s athletic director –– were paid for in this year’s existing salary budget and did not add expenses.

Those recent salary adjustments were paid for mostly through savings on other personnel costs, such as when long-time employees leave or retire and are replaced by new employees whose starting salaries are less, officials have said.

Tuition hike to net $500,000 more

The decision to increase summer tuition was made a few months before summer classes began, Wilder-Byrd said. Williamson and her senior leadership team made the decision along with leaders in Winthrop’s academic affairs division.

In 2012, the Winthrop Board of Trustees delegated the authority to set summer tuition rates to Winthrop’s president. In February, trustees discussed the summer tuition increase with the president and her staff, said board Chairwoman Kathy Bigham.

“The board and the president are sensitive to the burden increased tuition places on our students and their families,” Bigham said last week, adding that the president aims to balance costs while maintaining educational quality.

“As trustees, we understand that at times an increase is needed and the comparative numbers we were given supported this.”

Though Winthrop’s spring and fall semester tuition has increased by 37 percent from 2007 to 2013, the summer cost has grown by just 5 percent in the same period. In hopes of boosting enrollment numbers, school officials lowered the cost of summer classes in 2007 from $365 per credit hour to $285.

After the price cut, Winthrop saw a spike in enrollment but growth eventually leveled off.

Now, summer classes are offered at a 25 percent discount rate, which helps make Winthrop accessible to all students, Boyd said. The university is also proud to offer an increased number of online courses, she said, which gives working students and those who don’t live in Rock Hill a convenient way to take classes.

This summer, Winthrop has 64 online courses –– up from 50 last year. Unlike many other schools in S.C., Winthrop doesn’t charge an extra fee for online courses.

Winthrop officials were unable to say last week whether higher summer tuition affected enrollment this year because enrollment is not yet known. Officials did estimate that this summer’s tuition will bring in about $500,000 more than last year.

The money will be used toward campus operating expenses and re-invested to boost access to quality education, officials said.

“As we considered our summer school tuition increase, we deliberately kept the rate as low as we could –– lower than most other institutions like ours around the state,” Williamson said, adding that with “continued low levels of recurring state support, we also need to generate revenue to fund the quality of the Winthrop educational experience.”

Last year, Winthrop’s summer school served 1,953 students. During spring and fall semesters, enrollment is around 6,000 students.

It’s not easy to project enrollment for the next 2.5 months of summer classes because students have great flexibility in dropping classes from their schedule, Boyd said. There are four sessions of summer school, all with different start dates and all with different deadlines for students to pay.

Professor: Communications failed

At least two Winthrop academic department leaders say they’ve not seen a drop in enrollment so far this summer. In the school’s department of interdisciplinary studies –– which has about 10 courses this summer –– enrollment numbers are solid, said Marsha Bollinger, department chair.

The situation is similar in Winthrop’s department of philosophy and religious studies, said Peter Judge, department chair. He added that he’s not heard any student comments about Winthrop’s increased summer tuition.

Others say students and professors are frustrated.

“Faculty and students weren’t informed in a timely manner,” said Jennifer Solomon, sociology and anthropology professor. School leaders should have sent a campus-wide email or at least a message to professors who could then inform students, she said.

Solomon said she remembers one email sent to her department earlier this year that mentioned that summer tuition would be higher. But, it didn’t specify 40 percent higher, she said.

For students, she said, an unexpected higher cost for summer classes can keep them out of school, and that “very few of them just have money to burn.”

While the decision to raise summer tuition is reasonable, there’s been some frustration on campus about how the increase was communicated, said John Bird, English professor and elected faculty representative. He supports the president’s pledge to improve communication moving forward, he said.

President Williamson addressed the issue with faculty members at a recent faculty conference meeting where she explained the need for tuition to increase.

“I empathized with the faculty who felt caught off guard by the tuition change,” she said. Because she’s committed to open and transparent communication, she said, the process will be quicker and more direct in the future.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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