Guide to Credits and Fees

Guide to enrolling in the “Right” number of units to avoid paying too much in tuition and fees in graduate school:

CSU graduate students are assessed tuition and several kinds of fees. In many cases, the amounts of these costs vary significantly with how many credits a student is registered to take. Thus, with a little forethought and planning, we can avoid paying too much for our grad students’ educations. This saves money for the PIs paying for GRAs and the students (who always pay the fees out-of-pocket when they are GTAs, and may pay these fees out-of-pocket when they are GRAs).

Here is a guide, ending in a cheat sheet, to figuring out how many credits to take and when:

First of all, let’s look at the total # of credits a student needs to take:

For a PhD student, 72 total credits are required, 37 of which need to be in 500+ level courses.

For a Master’s Degree student, 30 total credits are required, 16 of which need to be in 500+ level courses, with 12 of those 16 in “regular” (i.e. non-seminar, non-independent study, non-internship) courses.

Now, let’s look at how different categories of cost (tuition, different fees) scale with # of credits.

We’ll do this by semester, using 2017-2018 prices:

Tuition scales linearly with credit hours (to a point) – each credit costs $550.90 up to 9 credits for in-state residents. Each credit costs $1,350.60 for out-of-state residents. Above 9 credits, no additional tuition fees are charged for additional credits.

General fees are categorical- $150.29 per semester if a student is taking 1-5 credits, and $821.26 if a student is taking 6 or more credits.

University Technology Fees are always $25, period, so nothing to strategize about there.

University Facility Fees scale linearly with credit hours – $20.75 / credit for as many credits as you take.

University Alternative Transportation Fees are $11.02 for 1-5 credits and $26.23 for 6 or more credits.

Student Access Fees (for the CSU Health Network) and Counseling Fees are complicated. If a student is enrolled in 6 or more credits, these fees are part of the automatically assessed $821.26 General Fee. Nothing else to negotiate there. However, if a student is enrolled in 5 or fewer credits, then the amount of these fees, and whether or not they are assessed, depend on the students’ health insurance plan and their usage of the CSU Health Network. Students who are enrolled in the CSU Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) are charged the full Student Access and Counseling Fees ($248.07/semester), even if they are only taking 1-5 credits. For students who have their own insurance who are taking 5 or fewer credits, they can choose to pay to use the CSU Health Network. The charges are lower for these students: $124.04/semester, additional $80.76 for summer. If these students don’t want to use the CSU Health Network, they don’t have to pay. Please see the CSU Health Network website for more detailed information about this: http://health.colostate.edu/fees-eligibility/

Health Insurance

100% of the cost of the CSU Student Health Insurance plan (SHIP) ($3,233/year for domestic students or $1,527/year for international students) is paid by the Graduate School for students serving as GTAs and GRAs as long as they are enrolled in 5 or more on-campus credits. For students serving as GTAs/GRAs in both Fall and Spring, the Graduate School will also cover the cost of summer insurance. For students serving as GTAs/GRAs for only one semester during the academic year, the Graduate School will cover the cost of health insurance for ONLY that semester – not the other semester OR the summer. Graduate students enrolled in 5 or fewer credits are not automatically enrolled in the CSU Student Health Insurance plan! They have to complete an enrollment form at the CSU Student Insurance Office before the 10th day of classes (or do this online starting here: http://health.colostate.edu/student-health-insurance/domestic-undergraduategraduate-student-insurance/). Please see the CSU SHIP website for more detailed information about health insurance for graduate students: http://health.colostate.edu/student-health-insurance/domestic-undergraduategraduate-student-insurance/

Due to federal tax code, the payment from the Grad School offsetting the cost of health insurance is labeled as income (despite being reimbursed). Therefore, the student will pay additional tax on the first paycheck of each semester to cover the additional “income” they received. This tax is assessed in one lump sum and not spread evenly across all paychecks in the semester.

So what should our students do?

If we plan for a 5-year PhD, I think our students should have a by-semester credit breakdown that looks like this for their 10 semesters in graduate school:

13 credits

13 credits

11 credits

5 credits

5 credits

5 credits

5 credits

5 credits

5 credits

5 credits

Remember that PhD students who come in with a Master’s degree can get up to 30 credits accepted from their Master’s. Their overall credit calculation should be different based on their circumstances.

If we plan for a 2-year Master’s Degree, I think our students should have a by-semester credit breakdown that looks like this for their 4 semesters in graduate school:

10 credits

10 credits

5 credits

5 credits

Our students that have gone beyond 5 years (for a PhD) and 2 years (for a Master’s) and have accrued their 72 (for PhD) or 30 (for Master’s) credits raise some tricky questions about optimizing credits, fees, and insurance. 1 credit of tuition costs $1101.80/year (Fa and Sp). 5 credits of tuition costs $5509/year (Fa and Sp).

Domestic students paid as GRAs off of grants: For PIs paying such students’ tuition and stipends off of grants, it may be a bit cheaper for the PI (minimally ~$600/year, more of a difference if the students have their own insurance) if the student enrolls in 1 credit per semester and the PI pays the student’s tuition, health insurance, and other fees. At one credit, the student loses the health insurance refund that comes from the Graduate School ($3,233/year), and they are assessed the Student Access and Counseling Fees of $496.14/year if they are enrolled in CSU health insurance. If they have private insurance, they are assessed up to $328.83/year if they use the CSU Health Network and counseling services. PIs can pay students taking only 1 credit the cost of insurance and Student Access and Counseling Fees as supplemental income ($3729.14/year for students with SHIP; different calculation if students have their own insurance). This way, students are not penalized financially for taking only one credit. This is ~$600/year less than paying for 5 credits for spring and fall ($5509).

But wait. There’s more …

Enrolling in 1 credit is not a humane/viable option for our grad students with undergraduate student loans, as dropping below 5 credits eats into their loan deferment period.

Also, below 5 credits, students are required to pay into a Student Employee Retirement 403b plan (SERP) managed by TIAA/CREF. This results from CSU not contributing to social security. The contribution assessed against wages is 7.5% SERP and 1.45% Medicare (total 8.95%). This can feel like a lot to come out of a graduate student paycheck, although others would make the argument that mandatory savings is always a good idea. PIs and students should talk this over.

There are exemptions from the SERP contributions, which can be found here: http://ses.colostate.edu/student-employee-retirement-plan-serp. Outside of the conditions listed in the above link, there are no waivers or opt-out opportunities for CSU employees except for non-US citizens. “Graduate student grant trainees” (people who are totally funded through outside fellowships/grants and therefore not GTAs or GRAs) are not subject to the SERP withholdings.

There is no opt-out of the 1.45% mandatory Medicare contribution for any CSU employee; it is federally mandated. All grad students have the ability to opt-in to a separate 401k program through Colorado PERA if they would like to save additional amounts for retirement, but that cannot replace the SERP contributions unless they meet the exemption criteria above.

And there is even more: it gets complicated for short (e.g. half-semester) courses. The IRA process requires that student enrollment checks are reviewed biweekly, and if a student is enrolled in less than 5 credits at any point in the semester, the SERP/Medicare charges are withdrawn from the student’s check. So, even if a student completes 5 credits over the course of the semester, if there is a period when the student drops to less than 5 credits (after an 8-week or 12-week course ends), the student no longer meets the requirements for the biweekly credit check… and SERP kicks in.

For our domestic students who are supported as GTAs: Our students that have gone beyond 5 years (for a PhD) and 2 years (for a Master’s) and have accrued their 72 (for PhD) or 30 (for Master’s) credits should enroll in 5 credits per semester when they are teaching. (Even if it is cheaper to pay for 1 credit of tuition and cover health insurance and fees, we don’t actually get that saved tuition $$ returned to our department … so it doesn’t benefit us).

For our international students:

If you are a PI paying an international student (who can never be a Colorado resident) as a GRA, the Graduate School will cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for your student as long as they are enrolled in 5 or more credits. Thus, the tuition cost to a PI for an international student is the same as the tuition cost for a domestic student.

For international students who are working as GTAs, the Graduate School also erases the difference in tuition costs between in-state and out-of-state tuition as long as they are enrolled in 5 or more credits. Thus, international students should always be enrolled in 5 or more credits, which means that they are automatically enrolled in CSU health insurance and have the cost of it covered by the Graduate School.

But wait – there’s more. International students must be enrolled in 9 or more credits to be considered full-time for some types of immigration status (F-1 or J-1). To enroll in fewer than 9 credits while still maintaining their visa status, international students need to submit the following petition: https://webcom.colostate.edu/isss/files/2017/03/Reduced-Credit-Load-and-Full-Time-Equivalency.pdf

For fellowship recipients:

There are some additional considerations that will apply to recipients of external fellowships and may vary depending on the source of the funding. Many fellowships such as the NSF GRFP include a cost-of-education allowance. This can be used to cover tuition and fees. In this case of the GRFP, NSF prohibits the university from charging tuition or student fees even if the total bill would have exceeded the amount of the cost-of-education allowance. However, it is important to be aware that, unlike GRAs and GTAs, fellowship recipients do not automatically have their health insurance covered, and the University does not consider health insurance premiums to be a standard student fee. Therefore, if health insurance costs (when placed on top of tuition and other fees) exceed the cost-of-education allowance, the student will be responsible for covering those costs. This should be considered when deciding how many credits to take on.

Ideally, our PhD and Master’s Students teaching in the LIFE courses (especially during their first year, when they are being charged out-of-state tuition) should take 11-13 credits each semester, with the goal of completing as many of their 500-level requirements as possible during this time because their tuition is covered by their participation in LIFE.