Four Years For a Price

Last year, Emma Phillips, a junior, realized that she needed to graduate early. “I was on the phone with my parents discussing finances, and they said we probably couldn’t pay for the last year here,” Phillips said. She knew that she had enough Advanced Placement (AP) credits from high school that taking five classes each semester of her junior year would fulfill the 34-credit minimum. However, upon diving into Tufts policy, Phillips encountered a roadblock.

In addition to fulfilling distribution and major requirements, every Tufts student is bound by the residency requirement, a lesser-known policy that mandates students take classes full-time for eight semesters. In order for students to bypass the residency requirement, Tufts policy allows five pre-matriculation credits, five Tufts summer session classes, or a combination of the two to count as equivalent to one semester at Tufts. A combination of nine pre-matriculation credits and summer courses can allow a student to graduate a year early.

Despite this loophole in the policy, many students remain unaware that the residency requirement even exists in the first place. Phillips was lucky to have discovered the residency requirement in time to register for the five summer classes she needed in order to graduate early. “Had my parents called a month later, I probably wouldn’t have been able to register on time or figure out all the logistics,” Phillips said.

Basic awareness of the policy is the first hurdle to bypassing the eight-semester requirement. Phillips only knew about the policy because her friend had encountered the same problem. “I felt as if the information was accessible if you knew what to look for. When you ask [the deans] about it, they’re very good, but it’s a little hard to find, especially if you don’t even know what a residency requirement is.”

Joëlle Tollefson, who would have been a senior this fall, agreed that familiarity with the policy is key. Tollefson had always planned to graduate early and was able to work with her dean to develop a plan. “When I came into school, my parents made a deal with me and my brother like, you can go wherever you want, but you have to finish early somehow,” Tollefson said. “I was very explicit with my dean about my parents’ rule that we’re not paying for eight semesters of college.”

Taylor*, a senior, had a similar experience. “I knew from when I started at Tufts that I would need to graduate in seven semesters for financial reasons, and I spent a lot of time with my parents strategizing about how I could do that because of the residency requirement even before I started here,” they said. “Even coming from an upper middle class family and getting significant financial aid from Tufts, my entire time here I was still going to be buried in loans.”

Avery Spratt, a senior and part-time student, said the process took a lot of self-guided research. “It takes some deep exploration on Tufts websites and stuff that aren’t easy to navigate,” Spratt said. Anna Sossenheimer, a senior graduating this December, expressed similar thoughts. “I had such a hard time knowing what to do. There’s nothing on any website that explicitly says ‘if you want to graduate early, here’s what you should do,’ there are just bits and pieces,” Sossenheimer said. “I had to do all the undertaking by myself and do all the research.”

Students who don’t know about the policy may realize too late that seemingly benign decisions have sabotaged their chances at early graduation. Taking summer courses at a school other than Tufts and studying abroad through a non-Tufts program are both rejected as fulfilling a “Tufts semester” and thus cannot be used to complete the eight-semester requirement.

Beyond awareness of the policy, fulfilling this requirement is not always feasible, particularly for low-income students. Summer courses are not a viable option for all students, who may need jobs over the summer, making them unable to devote their time to courses. As the Tufts financial aid website states, “We will not be able to increase your financial aid for the next academic year because your summer earnings are low.” Moreover, although the $14,000 it costs to take five summer courses is significantly cheaper than the $26,576 it costs during the school year, financial aid for summer courses is limited. According to Tufts’ aid policies, the school offers “very limited grant aid to help pay for summer school costs,” and “if you decide to borrow a Direct Loan to pay for summer school, you will incur loan fees and interest charges.”

Moreover, by privileging students who were able to take AP tests in high school, Tufts is further exacerbating existing patterns of racism and classism. According to the 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation, published by College Board in 2014, Black students make up 14.5 percent of graduating high school classes, but make up only 9.2 percent of students taking an AP exam, and 4.6 percent of successful test takers, with success defined as achieving a score of 3 or above. Low-income students make up 48.1 percent of graduating classes, but only 27.5 percent of AP testers and 21.7 percent of successful testers.

In justifying the policy, Tufts’ undergraduate deans pointed to its deep entrenchment in the school’s expectations of its students. “The academic residency requirement has been an explicit bachelor degree requirement for decades, and the policy is so old, it precedes the tenure of all the deans now working in Dowling Hall,” the advising deans wrote in a joint email. As outlined in the Tufts Bulletin, the school believes the policy is necessary because “Students need time to reflect on and absorb knowledge,” an undertaking that can only be fulfilled through “four years of full-time study in an academic environment.”

However, many Tufts students burdened by the requirement have a different perspective. “It seemed like it was a way to kind of trap students to pay tuition,” Sossenheimer said. “The residency requirement and also just their lack of information about it felt kind of intentional, to be honest.”

Taylor agreed that the requirement seems to be financially motivated. “Tufts says that it cares about us not ‘rushing’ our college experience, but they literally are not at all subtle about how untrue that is because it’s my understanding that if you pay for eight semesters, you have fulfilled the residency requirement, even if you drop out and don’t get credit for that semester. So it’s all about money, not about students’ well-being.”

The deans pointed to Tufts’ peer institutions in their argument that the policy was a commonplace expectation of “residential liberal arts colleges,” citing Harvard and Brown as schools with stricter policies. In fact, Harvard makes exceptions to the eight-semester residency requirement for students with Advanced Standing, those who matriculated with transfer credit, and those who fulfilled credits in summer school, and Brown requires that only four semesters of study occur during the school year, and allows its students to graduate a semester early if all other degree requirements are fulfilled. Tollefson attested, “My brother went to Brown and that was not the case for him. He was easily able to do it.”

Compared to other schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, Tufts’ policy is on the stricter end of the spectrum. Bowdoin and Connecticut College require only four semesters of full-time residence; Williams, Wesleyan, Bates, and Hamilton allow students to graduate in six semesters; Colby requires seven; and Amherst and Middlebury each require eight, with certain exceptions. Trinity College lists no limit on how early students who have fulfilled their academic requirements may graduate.

In response to a question about the implications of the policy for low-income students, the academic deans defended the policy because of the aid such students would ideally receive in the form of “grants, loan-replacement, and financial aid” to support their studies during the school year. However, the deans admitted that not all students qualify for aid, writing, “Anecdotally, it seems that the students most financially impacted by the 8-semester policy are those students who do not quality for much (if any) financial aid but who must take out private loans for their college education.”

Spratt said much of her success in fulfilling the requirement came down to luck. “Had I not gone to Talloires or had I not had APs from high school, it would have been impossible and I would have been stuck,” she said. “I can’t imagine thinking you could graduate early and having that be the thing in your way, because it seems like just an arbitrary rule. If you finished your distribution requirements, if you finished your major requirements, why does it exist?”


*Name has been changed at the student’s request.

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