Change of major fee ineffective, not always necessary
I entered UTD as a visual and performing arts major with a theatre concentration. Over the next year and a half, I added a second major in political science. I ended up changing that political science major to a public policy major and, finally, switched my initial visual and performing arts major to a theatre minor. At each and every stage of this process, I talked to advisors both in the School of Arts and Humanities and the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences. The month I changed my theatre major to a minor, I saw a $50 charge that I did not recognize on my student account — a “change of major” fee. I looked up the university policy regarding the fee, and found out that it resulted from changing majors more than two times in one academic career. Over the course of my three degree plan changes through two university schools, I was never informed or given any warning of this fee — and its purpose is still unclear to me. Are the administrative costs of students changing majors really so high? Why are those costs not covered under tuition and other fees?
While it is in everyone’s best interest to encourage timely degree completion, there are many problems with using the change of major fee as a deterrent and better solutions to encouraging timely completion.
Firstly, the change of major fee cannot act as a deterrent if students do not know about it. Every student may promise to read the university policies at the beginning of their academic careers, but advisors play a large role in ensuring that students understand those policies and their consequences. I was not informed about the change of major fee until it was charged to my account, despite talking to advisors multiple times. Additionally, had I known about this policy, I would have wondered, does dropping a major to a minor really count as a change of major for the fee? What other degree plan changes constitute a change of major?
While the “Degree Plans” section of the 2019 Undergraduate Catalog states that “If a student elects to modify his/her major more than two times during an academic career, the third modification requires a $50.00 fee,” the “Tuition and Financial Aid” section states “There is a $50.00 fee for students changing majors more than two times in an academic career.” This leaves ambiguity as to whether degree plan changes past the third modification also require the fee, or if it will only be charged once during an academic career. If I were to modify my degree plan by declaring a minor, would I be charged the fee again? If these policies are to be effective, they cannot be ambiguous and must be clearly communicated to students well before the fee would be applied.
Even if information about the fee was clearly communicated, punitive policies that charge students for actions that may increase their time to completion are not effective. Adding a fee to students who may already face increased costs from having to spend more time in school does not help them finish faster, it just increases their debt. A 2018 analysis from the American Educational Research Association found no evidence that increasing fees to discourage excess hours increases student completion rates.
In 2018, UTD sat right at the statewide average for four-year public institutions of the average number of credit hours taken to complete a degree: 137. Because most degree plans are 120 credit hours, this is an extra one to two semesters students spend taking credit hours in excess of their degrees. Taking excess hours leads to higher costs and more time for students, which can increase overall student debt. Additionally, universities are often evaluated on their graduation rates, so students not completing their degrees in a timely manner — or at all — is not only harmful for the student, but for the university as well. Changing degree plans is one thing that could keep students in school longer than they need to be. I understand that the change of major fee was likely implemented to deter students from switching degree plans so many times that they would need to stay at UTD longer than they needed to.
However, if the university wants to deter students from taking excess hours, individual student situations must be considered. Even after my three major changes, I am still able to take two semesters off campus, and I have around seven elective classes free during my senior year. A $50 fee does not encourage me to complete faster or discourage me from changing my degree plan, it just makes me feel like the university is punishing me.
Each student is unique, and the best mechanism to help students make decisions about their degree plan should be their advisor, not a university-imposed fee. Advisors can give students individual attention and make recommendations to encourage students to complete their degree plans on time. The university should be engaged in active, positive advising rather than levying punitive, inflexible fees.
I am lucky that I had the means to pay it, but not every student does. Excess fees can keep students from getting their transcripts or re-enrolling at the university. UTD has a responsibility to ensure that its policies are in the best interests of its students, faculty, staff and community members, but the change of major fee is not. Abolishing this fee would be a small but meaningful improvement for the school.
Roma Venkateswaran is a public policy senior from North Potomac, Maryland.