Students may face obstacles to graduating due to budget cuts

Mackenzie Hatfield first stepped onto Appalachian State University’s campus in fall 2007.

Four years later, she has yet to graduate — despite never failing a class.

Hatfield, a biology major in her ninth semester at the university, said the lack of available classes and quality advising has contributed to her extended stay on campus.

Not only did she have to spend extra time, she also had to pay tuition for her additional semester.

“Lab space is too small,” she said. “It held me back from graduating on time.”

The four-year graduation rate has remained static at UNC-system schools in the most recent data available, with 34.9 percent of students graduating within four years in 2004.

But after absorbing a state funding reduction of 15.6 percent — or $414 million —this year, university administrators say budget cuts might begin to noticeably affect students’ ability to graduate on time.

Stephen McFarland, vice provost at UNC-Wilmington, said state funding cuts could cause the four-year graduation rate to decline in the next few years.

“It’s going to get harder and harder for students to get the 15 to 16 hours they need to graduate on time,” he said.

Susan Davies, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at Appalachian State, said the funding cuts have resulted in fewer course sections and problems with faculty retention.

“Budget cuts create a challenge for getting and keeping good teachers,” she said.

Reduced course offerings have placed students in an unfortunate position, said Franklin McCain, a member of the UNC-system Board of Governors.

“The students are the victims in this case,” he said.

Steve Roberson, dean of undergraduate studies at UNC-Greensboro, said schools will likely see more students struggling to graduate on time if state funding continues to shrink.

“There is huge pressure on limited resources,” he said. “I’m scared to death cuts may go further.”

Roberson said his office has taken several measures to help students graduate in four years. The university capped credit hours at 18 per semester and is allowing more flexibility in major requirements.

UNC-W has offered more independent study courses — one-on-one courses taught by professors without additional pay — to help students graduate on time, McFarland said.

Bruce Carney, executive vice chancellor and provost at UNC-CH, said budgetary restraints have not altered the University’s expectation that students graduate in four years.

“I think we’re going to be OK,” he said. “I am hoping we are bottoming out in terms of state funding cuts, so we don’t plan on changing our message.”

Carney said the University decided to moderate its cuts to financial aid and academic advising to maintain its four-year graduation goal for students. In 2011, 80.4 percent of the senior class graduated in four years, up from 69.1 percent in 2002.

But Carney added that “massive” holes remain in next year’s budget for academic operations.

Students such as Ivan Penado, a biology major also in his ninth semester at Appalachian State, said a lack of course availability postponed his graduation.

Penado said he had to stay an extra semester after a systematic botany course wasn’t offered his senior year.

“I really wanted to graduate in May, but the course I needed wasn’t available,” he said.

“I’ve been twiddling my thumbs for a year waiting to take this class.”

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