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Academic Affairs

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“Fees, Killer Rabbits, and Clickers”

Edsel and Jimmy Carter

Remember Jimmy Carter? The man was the Edsel of his day.

He wore a cardigan on TV to show how we could stay warm with less Middle East oil. He saw too far ahead of his time. On the other hand, his homespun style was too far behind the disco beat of the 1970s. Of course, those pesky killer rabbits and truculent Iranians caused him even more harm. (You must be over forty-five to get any of these references.)

Remember the students in your classes in fall, ‘07? When they began the year, fuel cost $2.50, not $4.50. Since then, the CSU has passed a 10% fee increase, while the campus quality fee adds $75 over the year—to increase to $200 several years out. These increases are necessary because we want salaries to rise and our budget to keep up. (You must live in the White House not to get any of these references.) We need fee increases mainly to offset state decreases. But we admit that increasing the fare so much so soon is not fair. This sounds like a dead end, but it is not.


Chart showing tuition versus total college expenses.


Let’s estimate the cost of attendance for an undergraduate who does not live at home but who owns a car and commutes here three times each week. Compare last year with the upcoming year. Well, what a surprise! CSUN fees make up less than one-fifth of the total cost of attendance. And in ’08-09, mainly because of the price of gas, cost of attendance will rise by nearly $2,000.

Now, what can we do about this? Without abolishing Propositions 13 and 98, revoking three-strikes-and-you-are-out, and increasing taxes, the state cannot help. In Napa, we blend varietals in oaken barrels. In Sacramento, we split partisans in molten quarrels. That leaves it to us to control what ferments cost.

By far, the indirect cost of education (see the black) exceeds the direct cost (see the red) of college. Look at the question in the blue. What can we do to control the indirect cost? We can set a goal, as a start, to decrease indirect cost for a full-time student, taking thirty credits in a year, by $336. $672—twice that—not only erases the fee increase in ’08-09; it effectively negates the cumulative effect of the fee increase in ’07-08. This goal is ambitious; but it would demonstrate that we are serious about controlling commercial costs while maintaining education value. We could:

  1. standardize and recycle clickers
  2. implement the textbook rental policy that the bookstore piloted this year
  3. develop “e” materials, where appropriate, as substitutes for texts, and/or
  4. initiate block scheduling such that, as an example, upper-division majors can get two-day-a-week schedules.

These are examples, not prescriptions. But consider these estimates.

  1. Eliminate one unnecessary purchase of a clicker: $50.
  2. Say that fifty percent of instructors agree to participate in textbook rental that takes one-third off the retail cost: $250.
  3. Say that the rest of use some “e” texts or, at least, monitor editions even more closely than we do: $50.
  4. Credit the fact that the campus quality fee wipes out course fees: $10.
  5. Reduce by one round trip per week the cost of commuting for twenty-five percent of the students. Were we to effect this for everyone, they would save on average $280. But as I said, let’s take only partial credit: $70.

Do the math. So far, we reach $430.


How many of us at CSUN understand that, because students pay by the term, not by the credit, taking more than four years is very costly. Now, often students have jobs and family commitments that limit the time for school. However, the cost of prolonged attendance is so high that, if a student has flexibility, that student should do a cost vs. benefit review of time to degree.

Undergraduates who take 6.1 credits or more in a term should pay $3,697 in fees next year. Were there to be no fee increases ever again, four years would run $14,748. If students paid by the unit, the cost would be $123 ($14,748 divided by 120 credits). But stretch those 120 credits over a fifth year, and one pays at least $3,697 multiplied by 5; that amounts to $18,485. Suddenly the cost of a credit would be $154. California thanks you for the donation; we need it.

Actually, matters are much uglier. Consider this chart that projects what a freshman who begins this fall might pay for fees and books in college, after four, five, six, seven, or eight years:

projected costs for freshman

  1. From YTG (years to graduation) to SUBTOTAL, you can calculate the cost of fees and books over four to eight years.
  2. FEES reflect both the phasing in of the campus quality fee and 10% annual increases in base fees. (10% is the trend.) BOOKS include an inflation factor, too. COST>4 sums how much the years add to a four-year route.
  3. LOST SAL accounts for the cost of working without a BA. The assumption is that a B. A. adds on average $250 per week. Even if one discounts those numbers, the totals still are likely to shock us.

An advisor who works with a student to reduce an eight-year route to seven years can save that student over $6,000 in fees and books. But look at the chart on the right. Because students pay by term, not by credit, and because fees are going up, not down, each credit effectively costs—uh, a lot more—the longer they sojourn with us.

college cost by year

Chart Comparison

Arguments that students are on aid, that they take more than 120 credits, and that they have lives, do not change the principle. Time is money. A ten-year student loan of $10,000 at 4.5% generally will cost less than a year of fees and books–$4,500. Can the student use the $10,000 to buy down or buy out time that is committed to non-academic matters? If that time is applied to taking more credits now, the long-term savings can be significant.

Imagine if we could save a year for a quarter of the people who otherwise would graduate in eight years 800 out of 3,200. Averaged over our total FTE (27,000), the amount likely would near $200. Add that to previous savings of $430 . . . We are closing in.

Next time a student says that ten credits each term feels right, ask the person, “Did you do the math?”


From 2004 to 2006, nearly 51% of first-time freshmen required developmental work in English, while nearly 48% needed such work in math. The numbers are quite staggering.

25% of the credits that students take their first two years, therefore, do not count as credits toward graduation, although they still cost. Boy, do they cost. At today’s rates they rack up $2,600,000 in fees and over $8,000,000 in general fund.

But there are hidden costs. Passing algebra in particular has been correlated with retention and graduation from college, even as passing high school algebra has been linked to high school graduation statistics in LAUSD and, of course, admission to and success in college. If we could reduce by one class the average number of developmental units that students take, we likely would save them a term—over $9,000. Factored over the students as a whole, this could amount to savings of nearly $1,000-$2,000 a head. $1,600-$2,600 is well above the goal that we set.

I must make clear that this does not require that we water down standards. Rather, we need to implement pilots that we have assessed, and pilot venturesome approaches to vexing problems.

  1. In math and English we have tested with success courses that allow students to advance when they master modules, not just when they complete seat time. Carnegie credits link time to fees in an unforgiving way.
  2. In both college and high school math courses, we are demonstrating that we can re-organize large, difficult courses around faculty who assess students’ knowledge, assign computer-based studies that adjust to the learners’ pace and level, and link the students with tutors.

These major changes save money because they improve learning. They challenge us to do what Boyer recommended two decades. Apply ourselves, as scholars, to the craft of teaching for learning.

5 Responses to ““Fees, Killer Rabbits, and Clickers””

  1. John C. Evans Says:
    On September 1st, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Students can definitely save money if the finish in 4 years or at least close to it. Unfortunately, I have more than a dozen student on waiting lists for all of my classes and some of these students might not graduate on time because they can’t take the classes they need. This is a big issue.

  2. ivor weiner Says:
    On September 2nd, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    excellent analysis of fees, etc. the bottom line is that faculty must be willing to the rising costs of college. the textbook rental program is an excellent opportunity to help students save some money. just check out the poor faculty turnout for signing up for such a program. my department flatly rejected it because they believe that students need to keep their books among other reasons! students should make their own decisions about what they purchase and keep. no need to convince students, they are ready, eager to adopt money saving ideas. all you have to do is convince faculty….best of wishes.

  3. carol shubin Says:
    On September 7th, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Calculus books are very expensive. Our required text costs about $200 at the bookstore. I give alternatives to the students….see my website.

    To be frank, the students prefer to use “file sharing” sites like

    which includes information about sites like

    that has solutions to all the problems in the book.

    that’s ok with me…i can work with it by giving more interactive assignments during class time
    and problems out of the book, etc.

    During the summer, I asked Paul Schantz who oversees the AS website to provide information to incoming students about buying textbooks at discount brokers rather than or in addition to
    information about the CSUN bookstore. However, he indicated that he could not do this without a papal decree (from Harry). Instead, he asked me to pass out fliers at student orientation, but in 100+ degree heat on 8/12/08, I must admit I did not do this.

    AS should be encouraged to post info about the Open Text Book Initiative and related info http://www.calpirgstudents.org/news

    We should take a look at universities that are doing a better job of supporting online educational sites such as Ohio State….
    + elite universities MIT, etc…+ online universities UMA and Phoenix…

  4. carol shubin Says:
    On September 17th, 2008 at 10:30 am

    Harry, Can you explain how the redesigned online/hybrid courses are evaluated for
    academic quality? Do we keep track of improvement/decline in student performance?
    How is that information used?


  5. harry h Says:
    On September 19th, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    there is no standard way,c, as eval differs by course and dept. most tho have looked for some measure of student performance and sense of site usability. data belong to the instructor/dept