SAN FRANCISCO – They're called super seniors, and they can be found on nearly every college campus in America.
These veteran undergraduates have amassed many more units — and taken many more classes — than they need to earn a degree, with college careers that can stretch well beyond the traditional four years.
At California State University, the nation's largest four-year college system, school administrators say enough is enough. They say the 23-campus system can no longer afford to let students linger so long without collecting their diplomas.
After gentler efforts to prod super seniors toward graduation, Cal State officials want to start charging hefty fees that could almost triple the cost for students who have completed five years of full-time undergraduate work.
The CSU Board of Trustees is expected to vote on the "graduation incentive fee" when it meets in Long Beach on Tuesday. The board tabled the proposal in September after students complained and trustees raised questions.
The proposed fee — like those adopted in several other states — is aimed at encouraging students to finish their degrees faster and make room for new undergrads in an era of scarce resources. Deep budget cuts over the past four years have forced CSU to sharply raise tuition, cut academic programs and turn away tens of thousands of qualified students.
"If we can graduate more students, we can create more capacity to enroll more students," said Eric Forbes, the system's assistant vice chancellor for student academic services. "It's about access and creating more efficiency in the system."
But the idea doesn't sit well with students who say they would be punished for switching majors, adding a major or minor or getting bad academic advice. They complain that budget cuts have made it harder to get classes they need, so many students take courses they don't need just to keep their financial aid.
"Sometimes through no fault of their own, students are forced into being super seniors," said David Allison, president of the California State Student Association. "It could harm individuals who change their majors as they figure out what they want to do with their lives."
The super-senior charge is one of three proposed fees that are projected to generate $30 million in annual revenue and create space for up to 18,000 additional students. The board is also expected to vote this week on imposing new fees on students who repeat a course or take 18 or more units in one semester.
The proposed fee would be phased in over two years. It would apply to students with 160 or more semester units in fall 2013 before the threshold falls to 150 units in fall 2014. Most majors require 120 units.
Super seniors would be charged $372 per semester unit — in addition to in-state tuition of $2,985 per semester. For a full 15-unit course load, they would pay around $8,500, about what out-of-state students pay. The charge per unit would have been higher if Gov. Jerry Brown tax measure Proposition 30 had not passed on Tuesday.
The proposed fee would hit students like Danielle Parsons, a fifth-year senior at Sacramento State University. She has already surpassed 150 units and expects to exceed 180 when she graduates next spring with two majors and a minor.
"I want to be done with college just as badly as college wants me to be done with it," said Parsons, 22. "I understand they have to figure out a way to get people through the system. However, I think it would greatly hurt many students like myself."
The economic downturn has forced many American colleges to rethink the tradition that has long allowed students to explore academically, sample a wide variety of classes and repeatedly switch majors, said Michael Tanner, chief academic officer at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
"We're really having to ask, are we able to let students have as much choice as they had in the past?" Tanner said. "Maybe students who are engaged in this voyage of self-discovery are wandering too long without finding themselves."
In recent years, state university systems in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin have begun imposing extra fees on super seniors to encourage students to graduate earlier.
Cal State's proposed super-senior fee is part of a broader campaign to improve graduation rates in the CSU system, where only 16 percent of freshmen graduate within four years and 52 percent graduate within six years.
Across the 427,000-student system, about 8 percent of graduates finish with at least 18 more units than the minimum needed for a bachelor's degree. About 6 percent of seniors — or 9,000 undergrads — have completed more than 150 units, according to CSU officials.
That figure is much higher at Sacramento State University, where about 20 percent of graduates finish with more than 150 units, said Lori Varlotta, vice president for student affairs.
But Varlotta doesn't think the high-unit counts are unreasonable given Cal State's student population, which includes many low-income residents who are the first in their families to attend college.
"There are a few students who are purposely delaying their degree, but they're few and far between," Varlotta said.
Over the past few years, Cal State campuses have been trying to push out super seniors by requiring meetings with academic advisers and limiting participation in extracurricular activities.
San Jose State has reduced the number of students with more than 150 units by 37 percent since 2009, mainly through aggressive academic advising, said Cindy Kato, director of student success services.
"I'm pushing on them, 'Finish, finish, finish, finish,'" Kato said.
Eric Rodriguez, a fourth-year computer science student at CSU East Bay, said he's worried he will have to pay the super-senior fee next year because he was forced to switch majors at the end of his sophomore year when he couldn't get into the school's competitive nursing program.
"I definitely want to get a job," Rodriguez, 21, said. "I don't want to be in school any longer than I have to."