Students take smaller course loads as college gets more expensive
Back in the early 1990s, FAMU’s lower division students (those with fewer than 60 credit hours) were increasing their course loads. That trend peaked in 1997, when freshmen and sophomores enrolled in an average of 14.2 credit hours each semester.
Those days are long gone. In 1998, FAMU’s average lower division credit hour enrollment rolled off a cliff. Today, it’s still in a free fall. Freshmen and sophomores only take about 13.5 credit hours per semester.
Upper division students (those with more than 60 credit hours) have been more erratic in their course load patterns. At all State University System institutions, the upper division students carry a lower average course load than their lower division classmates.
FAMU’s juniors and seniors generally increased their average credit hour enrollment between 1994 and 2005, going from 12.2 to 13.7. But beginning in 2006, they started to enroll in fewer courses. In 2007, their average was only 13.3.
The reasons why
The biggest factor behind FAMU’s declining average credit hour enrollment is the rising cost of college. Beginning in Fall 1998, most of FAMU's credit hours came from the lower division. Of all the SUS schools, FAMU and FGCU (since 2005) are the only two at which the lower division contains the majority of the undergraduate student body's credit hours.
FAMU’s students are getting stuck in the lower division because they can’t afford to take enough credit hours to move through college quickly. Most FAMU students come from families that make less than $40,000 each year. When tuition and living expenses go up, they take fewer classes due to their lack of funds. Many of these students have to interrupt their education to work until they make enough money to re-enroll.
Pell Grant increases haven’t reversed the trend
The maximum Pell Grant award increased from $3,000 in 1998 to $4,310 in 2007. However, the new financial aid did nothing to stop FAMU’s lower division credit hour loads from dropping. Pell Grants have not kept pace with tuition hikes.
This fact should serve a stark warning to those FAMUans who assume that tuition hikes are a good idea now that the Congress has approved a Pell Grant increase and American Opportunity Tax Credit.
It’s highly likely that FAMU students will use the Pell Grant increase and tax credit to cover soaring expenses outside of class rather than buying more credit hours. In 2007, it cost $14,160 for in-state students to attend FAMU and $26,101 for out-of-state students. But, the average financial aid award was $10,478. The stimulus funds will likely go to fill that gap.
Bottom line: Tuition hikes are not helping FAMU. If FAMU wants to increase its graduation rate, then it must find ways to make college more affordable so students can enroll in more credit hours.
Note: This is part one of our special series: “Investing in a Higher Graduation Rate.”
Sources: State University System Fact Books, American Council of Education, and New America Foundation.