Two full-time undergraduate students sitting in the same classroom at a New Jersey four-year public college may pay very different amounts for that class because of flat-rate tuition plans.

The difference can be substantial. For the spring 2013 semester, all full-time students at Richard Stockton College paid $6,161 in tuition and fees.

But a student taking the minimum 12 credits paid about $205 more per credit, or $820 more per class, than did a student who is taking the maximum 20 credits allowed under college’s flat-rate tuition plan.

Flat-rate plans charge full-time students the same rate for a range of credits, typically 12 to 17 or 20. The more credits a student takes, the less it costs per credit. The system has grown nationally as colleges face more pressure to graduate students in four years and with less debt. Colleges can also prefer a flat rate because it provides more consistency in planning budgets.

But while it may be economically advisable, the decision to take the maximum credits should be based on each student’s individual situation, college officials said. Colleges contacted said their average is between 15 and 16 credits per semester.

The flat-rate tuition plan works best for students who can concentrate primarily on their courses. Students working and paying their own way through college are less likely to be able to also take extra courses, even if it could reduce their college debt.

Officials at two colleges, Montclair State University and Stockton, said they have seen a noticeable increase in credits over the past few years and have actively promoted the benefits of flat-rate plans to parents and students.

Stockton switched from a per-credit payment plan to a flat-rate plan for full-time students in the fall of 2009. Typically students must take the equivalent of 16 credits per semester to graduate in four years and can take 12 to 20 credits per semester under the flat-rate plan.

Data provided by the college show more than half of all full-time students take 16 to 19 credits and an additional 20 percent take at least 20 credits. The percentage of students taking just 12 to 15 credits has dropped from 35 percent in fall 2008, the semester before flat-rate began, to 21 percent in the fall of 2012.

College President Herman J. Saatkamp said the change has already had an impact. The four-year graduation rate for students who entered in 2008 and graduated in 2012 rose to 50 percent from an average of 43 percent in previous years. The national four-year graduation rate is about 40 percent.

Saatkamp said students who graduate in four years will likely have the added benefit of less college debt.

“There will always be some students who take more than four years,” he said. “But the early numbers really are encouraging.”

A typical course at Stockton is four credits, and the flat rate is based on the per-credit cost for 13 credits. Full-time students taking just 12 credits are paying $513.42 per credit this semester. Students who take 16 credits paid $385.06 per credit, and students who take the full 20 credits paid $308.05 per credit.

Part-time students taking fewer than 12 credits pay $473.93 per credit. The undergraduate average for the semester is 15.5 credits.

Saatkamp said allowing the maximum number of flat-rate credits to equal a full extra course was an added incentive since students would not have to pay more for the additional credits. He said some colleges have made the maximum an odd number so that students must pay extra if they add a full course. Stockton also increased its scholarship funding so students could focus on their academic work rather than having to get jobs to pay their expenses.

Karen Pennington, vice president of student development and campus life at Montclair, said when students take more courses they tend to focus more on their academics. She said the school has been promoting it as a way to save time and money, and get graduates into the work force more quickly.

“But a lot of first-generation college students have other obligations,” Pennington said.

Jeff Hand, associate provost for strategic enrollment management at Rowan University, said school officials don’t want students to take on more than they can handle just to save money.

“They take it all on, then do a nose dive,” he said. “We want them to be successful, and we want them to have balance in their lives.”

Hand said the university started a program to provide counseling and early intervention to struggling students.

Stockton students interviewed said that while they really appreciate the option to take more credits, it’s not always easy to do.

Some have taken 20 credits, but not every semester. They said just getting into all the classes can be a challenge, especially in popular or required courses that fill up quickly. But they like having the flexibility to take 20 credits one semester, then 12 in another, and still graduate in four years.

Freshman Alexis Lawless took 16 credits her first semester in the fall and is taking 20 this spring. She said it’s a challenge, but she wants to get all her requirements done so she can be sure to graduate in four years.

“I don’t want to be worrying about having enough credits my senior year,” she said. “And I want to get my money’s worth.”

Senior Melanie Smetona, of Haddon Heights, Camden County, said she took extra courses to get ahead and also used the flat-rate option to take some elective courses she was interested in that were not required for her psychology major. She will graduate in May, completing in four years.

Science majors said the flat-rate range allowed them to take their extra lab requirements without having to pay more.

Several students suggested talking to an adviser or preceptor to help set up a class schedule. Students who transferred from another college or changed majors said taking 20 credits allowed them to catch up on requirements without paying more.

Mike Plantarich, of Somers Point, has taken just 12 credits some semesters. The personal trainer, who wants to attend graduate school for physical therapy, said he was working a lot and wanted to make sure he got good grades, so he didn’t overload his course schedule.

It will take him an extra semester to graduate, but he believes it was the best plan for him, even if it cost more.

“My job helped pay for college, and I need good grades to get into PT school,” he said.

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241