Students march toward Tigert Hall on Nov. 17 to show their opposition to UF's block tuition proposal. "When education is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!" chanted the students. Photo by Erik Knudson.

To judge a student by his or her class schedule would be to peg nearly half of UF students as slackers. Their 12- and 13-credit semesters seem all too light and airy, and many seniors like them will soon be running victory laps around campus as they take rain checks on graduation.

But what these students’ transcripts don’t show are 25- to 30-hour work weeks at student-driven workplaces all over Gainesville. Transcripts don’t show club meetings, internship duties and team practices in which students involve themselves.  They all study, too.

But only as much as time permits. And with UF’s Board of Trustees proposing to implement block tuition at a fixed rate equivalent to 15 credits per semester, working students say they will find themselves paying extra for classes they don’t have time to take.

“It violates the basic principles of consumerism,” Student Body President Ashton Charles said during a Board of Trustees meeting Dec. 9. “They would be paying for a product that they’re not receiving.”

Fellow Trustee Carlos Alfonso, one of 12 board members who voted to delay the block tuition policy until at least the fall of 2012, said he doesn’t see it that way. Alfonso said there’s no reason UF’s tuition prices shouldn’t match those of other nationally-ranked public universities.

“UF is one of the least expensive of all 63 institutions that are part of the American Association of Universities,” he said. “Why should we not be able to compete in that marketplace?”

The Board of Governers will meet Feb. 10 to approve or disapprove the trustees’ decision to go ahead with block tuition. As the meeting approaches, Students for a Democratic Society has been organizing rallies to protest block tuition.

About 100 protesters marched to Tigert Hall Nov. 17 with signs, chants, 750 petition signatures and personal accounts of what block tuition means to them. About 30 protesters sat in on the Board of Trustees meeting Dec. 9, which Alfonso said more than likely swayed the board to delay the policy’s implementation.

Still, SDS members and other protesting students are planning more rallies in the coming months to challenge what they say is the university’s attempt at making more money on the tuition front. UF spokesman Steve Orlando, however, said it’s less about the money and more about the AAU’s rankings; a higher graduation rate, one of the ranking criteria, is indeed a goal for the university.

“The amount of money we’d be gaining out of this is $4 million to $5 million, which is not that substantial compared to our total revenue,” Orlando said. “The driving force is getting students done as quickly as possible to provide accessibility for incoming students.”

He said to think of it like a restaurant.

“You only have ‘x’ number of seats at a restaurant, and you can only serve ‘x’ number of people until those people leave to free up some seats,” he said. “It’s only fair for the applicants working hard to get into UF.”

But SDS activist Diana Moreno said she doesn’t see how a public institution can run itself like a private business.

“The restaurant theory is dangerous,” she said. “They talk about incentivizing students, but this is just punishing them. People come here because they have a unique chance to get a valuable education at one of the most affordable rates in the country. I didn’t go into this school expecting price spikes.”

Charles mentioned during the Board of Trustees meeting that block tuition doesn’t necessarily promise higher graduation rates, citing Texas A&M University’s inability to raise graduation rates through its own block tuition policy.

Still, Jaime Gresley, director of New Student and Family Programs, said earning a seat at a selective university like UF means students are intellectually capable of the 15-credit load, a load around which most of the university’s critical tracking systems are built. Gresley said four years is a reasonable amount of time to graduate, but Orlando said it’s still not a requirement.

“The university isn’t forcing anyone to take more credits,” Orlando said. “They can still take less than 15, but they’re going to have to pay more for that privilege.”

“It’s ironic because the people taking fewer credits, the people who can barely afford this, aren’t the ones taking too long to graduate because they’re wasting their days partying,” Moreno said. “They’re taking longer because they’ve got a job to worry about or a kid at home or other pressing circumstances.”

Dave Schneider, a SDS rally organizer, said intellectual capacity isn’t the only asset students need to shoulder the 15-credit load.

“You need to consider time, too,” he said. “When you put this kind of strain on students who have other legitimate obligations besides studying, you’re probably going to see a dip in their performance. This is either going to be a GPA killer or a bank buster.”

But after UF’s most recent population survey — which 70 percent of students answered in order to be eligible for the fall 2009 football ticket lottery — Gresley said the university isn’t so convinced students are being strained.

According to the 2009 SERU survey, 58 percent of students do not work, and more then half of students spend 10 hours or less studying for their classes. Dr. Jeanna Mastrodicasa, assistant vice president of student affairs, said that’s not enough.

“For every hour in class, students should study or prepare two hours outside of class,” Mastrodicasa wrote in an e-mail. “Accordingly, for a 15-hour schedule, 30 hours of studying should be taking place. And you can see where UF students are on that spectrum.”

Students also fell short of the 15-hour, four-year graduation plan of study, with the mean load being 14.1 hours.

“If you’re taking 12 to 15 credits, the difference in price you would be experiencing with block tuition is about $500,” Orlando said. “We don’t think the burden is that large.”

But that’s more than a month’s rent for Moreno It’s the cash she barely managed to gather for the fall semester’s textbooks — even after scouring discount websites. An increase of $500 still represents hours of minimum wage or internship pay for the 42 percent of students who work. And while the average workload for students working on campus ranges from 12 to 13 hours per week, the university has no data on students working off campus.

What it does know, however, is that some portion of tuition costs will be covered for the majority of undergraduate students. Director of Student Financial Aid Karen Fooks said during the Dec. 9 meeting that 88 percent of undergraduates are already receiving financial aid.

When several board members brought up the question of identifying and dealing with special cases of hardship issues — as well as the lack of ample time for those students to financially adjust to the situation — Fooks said students can walk into the financial aid office at any moment if their circumstances change. In addition, she said tuition accounts for only 29 percent of a student’s cost of attendance.

“An even bigger chunk of the cost is living expenses like room, food, books, supplies, and health insurance,” Fooks said.

And an even bigger chunk, Alfonso said, is a different tuition increase already in place.

“They’re missing a big elephant in the room, which is the yearly tuition increase of 15 percent that students are now experiencing,” he said. “This block tuition pales in comparison to that. The trend is for higher education prices to go up much faster than the cost of living and inflation. We are trying to combat that.”

Both Orlando and Alfonso said they know what long days — equal parts work and library — felt like as a student. They said it’s still manageable to work, study and enjoy a rich college experience.

But Schneider said the university is forgetting the importance of a college experience beyond the classroom, especially in a 21st century job environment.

“How the administration views education comes in stark contrast to how students view it,” he said. “Degrees don’t go as far as they used to, and staying in school while gaining professional experience is preferable to entering the really soft job market that exists right now. This added pressure will impede on our ability to put our best foot forward post-graduation.”

For now, Students for a Democratic Society is gathering student support and planning a rally for the Board of Governors’ Feb. 10 meeting, at which they will approve or disapprove the Board of Trustees’ decision to implement block tuition at UF as early as the fall of 2012.

“I’d like to be part of the conversation,” Moreno said. “We’re not these spoiled kids, kicking and screaming because we don’t get something we want. I earned my spot here, and I never promised I’d be out in four years.”