Extending education

Theresa Edwards

29-year-old graduates from college after 12 years

Courtesy of Johnny Lechner

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

A 29-year-old, 12-year college student is going to graduate May 13 — and he was almost a Kent State student.

Johnny Lechner took a tour and applied at Kent State, and it was one of his final college choices in 1994, but he chose to go to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Lechner said he’s been in what he calls “higher education heaven” since his admittance to the university.

About three years ago, the Wisconsin Board of Regents, the governing board for the college, passed a law nicknamed the “Johnny Lechner Law,” Lechner said in an e-mail.

The law requires any student attending a Wisconsin university to pay a surcharge nearly doubling the tuition once the student obtains 165 credit hours or more, said Sara Kuhl, director of news and publication at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

“They feel that it’s not unreasonable to have them pay a higher tuition,” she said referring to the Board of Regents.

Lechner is going to graduate with three majors and three minors in theater, communications, education, health, liberal studies and women’s studies.

“I was just pretending to forget to complete the course that I needed to graduate,” Lechner said in an e-mail. He said he completed the paperwork and was working on his graduation speech so he could graduate in 1999 when he got cold feet.

He just can’t afford the tuition anymore though, he said. He’s worked approximately six days each week waiting on tables and playing acoustic shows to support his college education.

Lechner said he’s racked up approximately $200,000 in debt during the course of his 12 years.

He said he will graduate with about 290 credit hours.

Only 120 credit hours are needed for an undergraduate bachelor’s degree, Kuhl said.

But the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater regularly has other students who are employees as well and take an extended period of time to graduate with an undergraduate degree.

“Johnny Lechner has made it an issue for himself,” Kuhl said. “He’s very good at marketing himself.”

Lechner disagrees.

“CNN just stated I’m the most educated undergraduate in the world,” he said, adding the university is just trying to downplay it.

He said if he could afford the tuition, he’d gladly stay another year. He’s paying for each semester as it comes and goes, he said. His parents don’t help him and he’s used some student loans to help pay for it in his early years of college.

He said he hasn’t considered transferring schools because of the new legislation, and it’s not even an option.

“This is my school; this is where my friends all are,” he said. “Just because you have to pay a little more in tuition, that’s not it.”

Kuhl said the university doesn’t have set policies about graduation aside from the new law.

“It’s a decision we don’t force anyone to ever graduate,” she said. “It’s just a matter of whether or not anyone wants to pay the tuition.”

The university also supports their students.

“We applaud anyone who has that much desire to continue learning,” Kuhl said.

Contact features reporter Theresa Edwards at [email protected].