Please Just Let Me Out Of Here: Tufts’ Unreasonably Restrictive Graduation Requirements

Design by Maria Cazzato

A meeting I had with some development officials in the Tufts fundraising office a few weeks ago began with my least favorite question: “So, what year are you at Tufts?”

Like many students between the class years of 2021 and 2024, I took a year-long leave of absence during the height of the COVID pandemic to avoid paying exorbitant tuition fees for Zoom school and accepted a job organizing with the Democratic Party of New Hampshire. This was a life turn that my freshman-year professor of political science recommended to me. This professor also kindly served as a professional reference for me in the application stage. I have a lot to be grateful for with regard to the faculty at this university for giving me such helpful guidance and career support during an incredibly tumultuous time.

Feeling thankful for my professors is pretty much where my gratitude toward this university ends.

According to my student ID, my email signature, the name tag I was assigned at a Tufts fundraising gala a few weeks ago, and the emails I routinely receive from the registrar asking me to register for a graduation I cannot attend, I am supposed to be graduating this spring. According to the credits I’ve amassed on SIS from, for lack of a better term, busting ass for six semesters, I should be graduating next fall. However, according to a series of cold and robotic emails I’ve exchanged with the deans of this school, my graduation timeline is contingent on the receipt of 8 full-time semester tuition payments (or some creative, but additionally expensive, solution such as studying abroad or over the summer).

While understanding that residency is meant to describe full-time enrollment rather than proximal residence, it is pretty ironic for an institution that only guarantees housing for four semesters to have an eight-semester requirement known as the “residency” requirement. But I digress.

Many institutions have similar requirements, also called “residency” requirements, but they tend to differ in one key way—these requirements refer to how many credits a student has completed across any number of semesters, rather than how many semesters they have spent as a full-time enrolled student. According to most universities, these provisions ensure that a majority of a graduating student’s credits were earned at the university that is noted on their degree, as opposed to transfer credits or pre-matriculation credits. Basically, in order to legitimately obtain a degree from a particular school, you should be prepared to take most of your courses at that school. This seems generally reasonable to me.

What strikes me as highly unreasonable is the requirement that students must not only complete 120 semester-hour units at Tufts and the various distribution and major requirements, but that students must complete those SHUs over the course of eight full-time semesters. It seems especially unreasonable that even if students can complete those requirements in a shorter amount of time, as I (and many other Tufts students) have, they still must pay for eight semesters.

A full-time semester at Tufts has a SHU cap of 18 credits, which can be raised slightly higher upon petition. This means Tufts students should plan to take an average of 15 credits per semester. However, a student can easily complete 120 in seven semesters, or even in fewer semesters with the assistance of pre-matriculation credits, credit over-enrollment, or summer community college classes. All of these options are generally cheaper than completing a full-time eighth semester at this university, one of the most expensive in the nation, with one of the most competitive adjacent housing markets which features yearly skyrocketing prices.

Some students are eligible for a waiver from this burdensome hurdle to graduation. Students who were enrolled full-time in Fall 2020 can be exempted from the residency requirement and complete their degree in six full-time semesters. I cannot state with certainty what the reasoning from the office of Academic Advising was, and, to my understanding, Tufts has given a statement to The Daily that can best be described as incoherent and vague. Essentially, Dean Lowe noted that attending college during COVID was an unusual challenge, and this waiver was introduced to somehow ameliorate that experience. Personally, my (perhaps cynical) take on this waiver is that Tufts’ policymakers understand that students who paid full tuition for a semester of Zoom classes with virtually zero extracurricular activities perhaps overpaid for an underwhelming collegiate experience. As such, the waiver is a refund of sorts—if you overpaid for bad education, you can get out of paying for one or two semesters.

But what about students who opted out of Zoom school and decided to take a leave of absence during the pandemic to avoid shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to be locked away in Harleston Hall for four months? Were their undergraduate experiences not also affected by the pandemic? Did they not also suffer pitfalls in their education due to COVID? Did they not also return to a reduced-capacity university that often failed to meet the standard of education Tufts promised to them in admissions packets, during tours, and in their promotional materials?

I understand the COVID-related policies the university put forward were relatively effective. I understand everyone in the offices of the Tufts administration was ostensibly doing their best. However, I cannot help but feel that some of us are being totally left behind by these policies.

I have been asked several times in the last year and a half why I am fighting so hard with the administration to graduate. Of course, there are the obvious reasons—the huge financial burden of tuition, the desire to work full time as opposed to arranging my work schedule around my class schedule, and the freedom of mobility to leave Somerville. However, there is also a reason I often fail to accurately describe, but that any student on an alternative graduation timeline recognizes: the feeling of being left behind. Watching all of your friends walk across the stage at their various commencement ceremonies, watching them pick up their caps and gowns in the campus center and register for Senior Week events and discuss their post-graduate jobs and knowing that you would be there, too, if not for an arbitrary requirement that hardly denotes whether or not you have earned a piece of paper that says you have proficient knowledge of Sociology.

I am particularly frustrated by the way Tufts promotes and highlights the civic engagement of its students while using it as a reason to extract additional tuition payments from students who choose to take time off from school to be civically engaged. I know for a fact I am not the only Tufts student who took a leave of absence during the Fall 2020 semester, which notably coincided with the presidential election that ushered Donald Trump out of the White House. I am proud of the work I did in 2020, working 80 hours a week for the New Hampshire Democratic Party for minimum wage because I was told by everyone around me that it would be the most important election of my lifetime. Following that, I continued to work in service of my community, fighting for justice and equity across the Granite State. Administrators love to hold myself and other students like me up as shining examples—until we request accommodations for extraordinary circumstances.

This Tufts graduation requirement is exclusively endorsed and promoted by the administration, who are the most distant figures from undergraduate students in the Tufts community. My professors have been wonderfully supportive of me as I attempt to navigate the residency requirement, generously allowing me to complete my senior honors thesis on a spring-to-fall timeline in the hopes that my petition for graduation will be approved by next December. I have been allowed to enroll in courses that I need to graduate despite SIS insisting I have an additional semester of time to complete them. Professors have offered sympathetic ears during office hours as I explain my desperation to graduate and move on with my life. I hope that someday—preferably sooner rather than later—the Tufts administration may share that empathy for students like myself. Until then, I have no choice but to continue to be a nuisance and relentlessly pester the academic advising office.