A Matter of Degrees

Four-year programs may be a thing of the past as the University of Memphis seeks nontraditional students.

photograph by Dreamstime

Shunitra Ingram, a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Memphis, works at least 25 hours a week as assistant manager at a clothing store while carrying 13 credit hours. She’s on track to graduate in 2014, but will have to take 16 credit hours next semester while keeping her job.

Her scholarship covers tuition but not books or living expenses.

“I did think about dropping out,” says the Texas native, who hopes to get a newspaper job after graduation. “I work because I have to.”

Martin Dinstuhl, 38, takes classes at the university at night and online while working as a technology adviser at FedEx. A self-described “computer nerd” who transferred from Christian Brothers University, he got caught up in working 40 or more hours a week, and now finds himself near the end of a decade-long academic marathon in pursuit of a degree in business administration in management information systems.

“It’s a lot easier said than done,” he says.

Such is the life of nontraditional students at an urban university. As interim president Brad Martin and his staff work to close a $20 million budget gap — about 4 percent of the annual budget of $500 million — it is crucial for the university to attract and retain students such as Ingram and Dinstuhl who can juggle jobs and classwork. Approximately 75 percent of students work 25 hours a week or more, but only 46 percent finish their degree within six years. The university gets 90 percent of its revenue from tuition and state appropriations.

“If we fail to recruit a student or lose a student, it’s about $15,000 a year,” Martin told faculty, students, and staff at an open meeting on campus in October. The tone was businesslike but not grim. Skeptics were in the audience, including a professor who said the university’s motto should not be “Dreamers, Thinkers, Doers, and Widgets” and another who said he feared the university will become “a jobs machine.”

“If you don’t think this is a competitive enterprise, that’s fine, but it is,” Martin said.

Asked if there would be layoffs, he said, “I’m not prepared to make any declaration.”

Enrollment is down 1,500 students in three years despite the addition of the Lambuth campus in Jackson. “Lambuth went bankrupt,” Martin reminded the audience. His goal is to add 700 students in 2014 and another 1,000 in 2015, which would bring the total to 23,150. Programs most likely to expand are nursing, which has new facilities on the South Campus, and education, which Martin envisions as a national model for teacher training.

In-state tuition has gone up 30 percent in the last five years to $8,312. Martin wants to go to a single tuition for in-state and out-of-state students in conjunction with a pledge of no tuition increases for three years. And he wants the six-year completion rate to improve from 46 percent to 55 percent.

Dinstuhl gives several reasons for his extended college career. His family is in the candy business but he chose to get an associate degree at technical school after high school instead.

“Back then it was more of a meritocracy in the tech field,” he says. “If you had skills and ability to do this sort of thing they would bring you on and put you to work.”

He later enrolled at CBU because it was “the only game in town” in his field at that time. He transferred to the U of M in 2008, but some of his credits were not accepted so he had to repeat classes. On top of that, he says some of the material was “ten years old” and less useful than his on-the-job experience or the Leadership Memphis Fast Track program. FedEx reimburses him for up to $5,000 a year for tuition. He has loans for the rest.

“The biggest thing is they started to add a lot of fees,” he says. “It’s almost like signing up for cell phone service.”

Dinstuhl is determined to finish what he started and be the first member of his family to have a bachelor’s degree. The job prospects in his field, he says, “depend on who you ask.” His educational odyssey may not be over.
“I will be able to get a master’s degree now.” 


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