This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Depending on who you talk to, a new tuition policy at Saint Louis University law school will either save summer students money or cause them to pay up to 60 percent more.
In recent years, summer students, who generally are those working part time toward a law degree, have paid a flat fee of $4,500 for courses, regardless of how many hours they sign up for. The new policy, which students were notified of last week, gets rid of the flat fee and instead charges $1,200 for each credit hour.
Jessica Ciccone, spokeswoman for the law school, said the change was made because some students take less than four credit hours in the summer, so they were paying for classes they weren’t taking. The new policy, she said, is designed to be cost-efficient for students as a whole.
“We’re not trying to be harmful for people or make things harder for students,” she said. “A good number of students have told us they didn’t want to take courses under the flat fee.
“It’s not to make more money. It’s what is best for the entirety of the law school.”
But Beth Owen, the part-time students’ representative to the SLU student bar association, doesn’t see it that way. She notes that SLU has the only part-time law program in the area, and with just five years to finish their degree, a lot of students take six hours in the summer to make sure they can finish on time.
Now, instead of those six hours costing her $4,500, they will cost $7,200, prompting her either to add to her law school debt, take fewer classes or skip summer school and fall behind, not to mention losing the health insurance she gets as a student.
She also wonders why students didn’t even find out about this officially until last week, with summer registration starting this past Monday and timing for student loans a big factor.
“Now we’re all going to have to apply for new loans,” Owen said. “Some people are not going to be able to take summer semester at all.
“It’s advertised as the greatest part-time program in the country, and we’ll take care of you. Now, there will be people who may not graduate within five years because they won’t be able to afford it.”
Ciccone says that the idea to replace the flat fee for summer courses with a per-credit charge was approved by the SLU board of trustees at their meeting in February. A formal announcement of the change was delayed so the figures could be vetted by the school’s business office, then come out at the same time as financial aid information.
Asked whether the university considered giving students an option – either pay the flat fee or pay per credit hour – she said she knew of no other school that provides such an option, and she was not sure the business office would approve such a choice.
Since the flat fee was initiated in 2002, Ciccone said, summer enrollment has been fairly consistent, though it has shown a decline in the past three years that is in line with what overall enrollment has recorded. With the flat fee in place, she said, more students have chosen to take six hours or more, since they were paying for that much anyway.
She said demographics and student opinion played a big role in the decision to make the switch.
“This was based on a great deal of student feedback that they wanted the flexibility to take just one course rather than the pressure to take six hours,” Ciccone said. “We also asked students for feedback about a possible change and it was uniformly positive.”
She could not quantify the level of support for the new plan and said the information from students was gathered anecdotally, not through a formal survey.
Owen said she finds it hard to believe that student sentiment played such a major role in changing from the flat fee to the per-credit charge, particularly because it was gathered through informal discussion, not in a formal way.
To her knowledge, she said, “they did not speak to any students about this whatsoever. I am on the student bar association, and that would have been something that would have come through us.”
She said she might have been the one whose contact initiated the change, but she can’t be certain.
“A year ago, when I was elected,” Owen said, “there were some part-time students who came to me directly who said it would be nice if we could only pay for three credit hours, instead of paying the whole $4,500. As far as I know, I am the first person who even approached the administration about reducing the tuition.”
But she never dreamed that any change would result in such a large increase for students taking what she considers to be the typical six credit hours. Instead, she said, she thought students could have a choice to pick the plan that worked better for them.
“Not even imagine in my wildest dreams did I think they would make it for all credits and do away with the $4,500 payment altogether,” Owen said. “This is so bizarre that we don’t even know what to do about it. It came straight out of left field.”
The SLU law school, of course, has had no small share of controversies in recent months. Dean Annette Clark resigned abruptly last fall, and attorney Tom Keefe was named interim dean, to serve for this school year while a search for a permanent replacement was conducted.
Then, earlier this month, Keefe himself left in the wake of unhappiness about remarks that he had made that, depending on who described them, amounted either to political incorrectness or sexual harassment. He was replaced by Mike Wolff, the former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court who had rejoined the school’s faculty after his retirement from the bench.
Ironically, one of Keefe’s biggest complaints about the school, and legal education in general, was the high cost and debt burden may students had to assume, not just at SLU but in general.
That debt weighs heavily on most law students, Owen said. Still, she added, she appears to have little choice to take out even larger loans to be able to meet the new tuition plan for part-time students.
“My health insurance is wrapped up in my loan,” she said, noting that if she doesn’t register for classes, she will lose the insurance. “So if I have no option but to pay the increase. There really are no options for those of us who don’t have someone to support them.
“I’m going to have to suck it up and pay the $7,200, unless we can get them to change their mind. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, because it’s SLU, and that doesn’t usually happen.”