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Next semester, some seniors will find their Penn InTouch schedule with a lot of empty space.

A number of undergraduates are given permission to take on part-time status each semester, which means they can take 2.5 credits or fewer in their final semester at Penn.

The option is typically pursued by students who have acquired enough credits by the end of their seventh semester to graduate on time with a reduced course load, although in some cases, students go part-time for medical reasons.

This year, seniors have until before Jan. 9, 2013, the first day of the semester, to apply for part-time student status. While all that is required to go part-time is approval from a school advisor, for some students the decision is more complicated. Part-time students can face issues with their visas, athletic eligibility and insurance coverage, and some students’ financial aid packages can be affected by the change.

According to Associate Dean of the College and Director of Academic Affairs Kent Peterman, Penn’s part-time policy — which was first adopted in the 1960s, with few changes since then — gives eligible students a chance to avoid unnecessarily paying full tuition, but may shortchange them of a comprehensive academic experience.

“The policy makes a concession to what’s appearing more broadly in education, where the whole experience is carved up into little pieces and not looked at as holistic,” he said. “But the traditional notion of education is important for us to try to hold onto.”

The amount of students who go part-time varies greatly by school. The College has the highest number of part-time students, with 107 in Fall 2012. The Wharton School typically has 40 to 50 students declare part-time status. On the other hand, only five students on average go part-time from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, while the School of Nursing has six part-time students this semester and had four in Spring 2012.

Saving time and money

For many, financial savings weigh heavily in the decision to go part-time.

According to Student Financial Services, the cost of tuition for two courses is $11,064. This tuition is reflected in a student’s financial aid, though the amount the student saves varies per package.

“If I graduated early I wouldn’t be eligible to keep my work-study job on campus,” College senior Sally Bronston said of her decision to go part-time. “It would be more expensive for me to graduate early than to be part-time.” Bronston added that her family’s contribution to her financial aid package will stay the same and only the amount of money covered by the University will be affected by her part-time status.

A number of factors helped Bronston become eligible for part-time status, including entering Penn with four AP credits, successfully transferring all of her study abroad credits and majoring in political science, a 12-credit major.

College senior Stefanos Metaxas also looks forward to saving some money next semester. “The motivation is half off your tuition, so it’s well worth the money you don’t have to pay,” he said.

Other students who considered the part-time option did not find it as appealing.

Engineering senior Vamsi Vuppala said that compared to the loans he has already taken out, the money he would save by going part-time “is not equal to what I’d get out of taking a class in other departments.”

“My major doesn’t let me take as many classes as I want in other majors and explore what the university has to offer,” he added.

Vuppala also said that because he has a scholarship from an outside source, he would lose money
if he went part-time. “There are also other grants and scholarships I want to apply for that require you to be a full-time student, so that really limits me as far as what I can do,” he said.

Wharton senior Julia Sternfeld explored another alternative to part-time by planning her schedule so that she could graduate early in December. “I’m paying for my last year of college myself, so I figured if I could just pay for one semester instead of two, I could save a lot of money,” she said. “Even part-time is still kind of expensive if you don’t need the classes to graduate — it’s money out of my pocket.”

Newfound freedom

With only one or two classes in their schedules, part-time students find themselves with much more free time to spare in their final semester.

College senior Henry Goldberg planned ahead to go part-time with the goal of dedicating the spring semester to looking for a job. “I wanted to make sure I had an easier schedule so I could devote more time to that,” he said. While he was able to find a job this semester, he said he plans to fulfill his remaining requirement and take an elective this spring.

For Metaxas and College senior Amrit Malothra, a former Daily Pennsylvanian staff photographer, going part-time offered a chance to focus on their theses in economics.

“I finished all my core classes, everything apart from my thesis,” Metaxas said. “So I’m going to do that plus a photography class, which is something I’m really interested in and after I graduate I won’t have that much time to spend on it.”

Malothra, who gained extra credits through taking several summer classes at Penn, added that in addition to working on her thesis and applying to graduate school, she “can also do internships on campus so it’ll still be learning, but in a different way.”

The seniors also look forward to having more free time to spend with friends and relax. “I’m excited to have more time to do things in Philly [that] I don’t normally get the chance to do,” Bronston said. “I just really want to enjoy my last semester of college.”

Traditional education

While the rising cost of higher education can make the part-time option attractive to students, a reduced course load can be a tradeoff with full investment in Penn’s academic culture.

“We often have a hard time persuading students to take advantage of free electives,” Peterman said. “Students tend to want to turn their freedom into obligations … [a full course load] could be a good reason to explore things you’ve never had a chance to take.”

Goldberg agreed with Peterman on how students approach their classes. “I think we are preoccupied with ways to fulfill requirements, double count things, taking the easy way out,” he said. “I know that with a lot of my peers, the thing we regret most is not taking advantage of classes we wanted to take.”

Many students choose to go part-time because they entered Penn with multiple AP credits, giving them a leg up on meeting the number of required credits to graduate. Peterman explained that in recent years, the College has “become more stingy with AP credits … [we’re] thinking, ‘How does the AP experience prepare students for our curriculum?’ It’s always a guess whether that’s true,” he said.

For this reason, the University has seen a trend in giving waivers, rather than elective credits, for introductory courses when students submit their AP scores. This is “a way of finding the right placement into the curriculum, rather than being excused from the curriculum,” Peterman said.

Nevertheless, Peterman said Penn will continue to accommodate students who don’t need to take a full load of courses, especially since the “traditional” path in higher education is becoming more rare. “Institutions like ours still have tradition, but higher education in general has become very mixed and diversified in terms of the kinds of students,” he said. “A typical career through an undergraduate program looks different than it did 15-20 years ago.”

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