In a novel attempt to limit student debt, Ohio Northern University is making students go to the financial aid office before they switch majors.
The university, which briefly became a national poster child for high student debt, wants to make sure students know that a new major may mean more classes, more semesters, more money and, therefore, more debt. So, starting last fall, students who wanted a new major had to run it by the financial aid office.
President Dan DiBiasio said financial aid offices aren't going to prevent students from changing trajectories, but students will be prevented from switching majors until they can document a trip to the office.
“We’re not trying to discourage changes at all; it’s all right and it happens frequently,” DiBiasio said. “We just want to make sure it’s eyes wide open on the finance side.”
The university, a Methodist-affiliated private college of about 2,600 undergraduates in northwestern Ohio, was the reluctant star of a May 2012 New York Times story on student debt. Ohio Northern students who borrow graduate with an average of $50,000 in student debt, about twice the national average. But what really turned heads in the article was an Ohio Northern student with $120,000 in debt. Unsaid in the Times story, according to DiBiasio, was that the student had been a music performance major for three years and then switched to business. Since relatively few of the music performance credits could count toward a business major, the student had to spend more than five years at Ohio Northern and took out private loans.
Ohio Northern's new mandate took effect last fall as part of a larger series of changes. The college also announced a tuition “reset”  and a four-year graduation guarantee , along with other efforts  DiBiasio said were designed to ensure higher quality, not just to lower costs.
Besides the national spotlight, Ohio Northern is also contending with a competitive landscape in Ohio, a state full of colleges but a declining population  of high school graduates. Other colleges in Ohio have played with their price tags, including Ashland University .
Melanie Weaver, Ohio Northern’s director of financial aid, said so far most students who have talked with the aid office about a new major are first-year students, so any change they make isn’t going to have much if any effect on their stay at the college. The handful of students further along have yet to be swayed by the talk, perhaps because some of them were not making academic progress in a program, like engineering, and had to move on to another major or else transfer.
Ohio Northern's mandate may be unique nationally.
Eileen O'Leary, the assistant vice president for finance at Stonehill College in Massachussets and chair-elect of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said Ohio Northern may be on to something. O’Leary said she couldn’t speak for the national association, which closed its Washington, D.C. offices Tuesday because of a snowstorm, but she said had not heard of a mandate like the one at Ohio Northern. She said some counselors may be doing aid advising informally and noted the new federal “150 percent rule” limits first-time borrowers from taking out federally-subsidized loans for extended stays in college.
“It’s not a bad idea at all,” O’Leary said of Ohio Northern's plan. “They are not forbidding students; they are simply giving students what they need to make not only a good academic decision but a good financial decision.”