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."