Student Fee Shakedown

, Jenna Ashley Robinson, Leave a comment

At most colleges and universities, each student is required to pay fees in addition to tuition and living expenses. Those fees are used to pay for a vast array of things on campus, whether or not the student has any interest in them.

Over the years, there has been a lot of litigation over student fees, with some students arguing that the system for collecting and distributing money is not just unfair but illegal. On November 20, a New York court threw another wrench into the already convoluted legality of student fees.

In Amidon v. Student Association of the State University of New York , an appeals court in Albany, New York rejected the method that the student government of the State University of New York used – student referenda – to distribute funds to the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). The appeals court affirmed that that the school’s procedure did not meet the standard that the Supreme Court set in the 2000 case now known as Southworth vs. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

In that case, Scott Southworth and two other University of Wisconsin law students sued their university for making them pay fees that were used to fund student groups with which they disagreed.

The Supreme Court heard the case and ruled in 2000 that student fee systems had to be “viewpoint neutral.” That is, the fees must not be distributed so as to overwhelmingly favor any particular political philosophy. Conservatives and liberals must both have a fair chance, as should other campus viewpoints.

Since Southworth, student fees have remained a contentious issue. A new Pope Center study originated in an effort to find out whether student fees are fairly distributed between conservative and liberal campus organizations at UNC campuses.

What the study found is that student governments at UNC schools seem to allocate funds fairly among political groups. Where fees are used for political groups, the distribution seems to reflect the preferences of the student body. Student government at UNC-Chapel Hill distributed $66,412 to liberal students groups in 2006-2007, and $45,993 to conservative groups. At N.C. State, during the first 2006-2007 semester, conservative groups received $632 and liberal groups, $350. (N.C. State has strict limits on funding student groups).

Although we don’t appear to have a Southworth problem in the UNC system, the study found something that should be equally troubling. Only a small percentage of student activity fees at UNC system universities are actually distributed to student campus organizations.

The majority of student activity fees are allocated by university administrators for purposes having little or nothing to do with student groups and activities. These purposes range from paying for repairs at a student center to the funding of an undergraduate teaching award.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, only $39 of the $291.30 students must pay each year is given to student government to disburse to student organizations. At N.C. State, only $8.85 of the $363.50 collected per student for activities is distributed by students. (Students also pay health, athletics, “education and technology” and debt service fees.)

Contrary to the general impression, students are almost entirely excluded from the process of disbursing the student activity fee. Debate erupted at N.C. State last spring when some students objected because a portion of the student activity fee was designated to help fund a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center. Some complained that they shouldn’t be compelled to fund a center they would never use. They also argued that students should at least have the right to vote on such proposals. The administration – in charge of the funds – did not back down.

Students probably think that their activity fees go toward organizations like Students for Life and the Badminton Club. For the most part, they’re wrong. Their “student activity fees” aren’t being used for student activities. They should be called what they really are – extra tuition.

At N. C. State, for example, 95 percent of the activity fee is used by the administration for purposes such as on-campus childcare and student legal advice. At UNC-Asheville, $9.50 per student is put into a “green fund.” At UNC-Greensboro, money from fees goes into an equipment reserve. At many schools, student fee dollars are used for postal services. This spending suits the administration’s needs, but has nothing to do with student activities as they are normally understood.

Students usually have no idea where most of their student activity fee goes. To find out, a student would have to contact the university controller and ask for the information.

UNC leadership should become more open on this question. Officials should stop raising student fees as a means of generating funds for other campus spending they want and also make it easy for students to see where their activity fee money is going.

Jenna Ashley Robinson is the Student Outreach Coordinator at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.

Student Fee Shakedown

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

Most people don’t like to be compelled to pay for things they don’t want. Taxpayers rarely think, “The government sure is taking a lot of the money I earn, but I trust that in the wise judgment of the politicians, the money is being spent for the greatest overall good, so I’m content.” Quite a few revolts in history have been sparked by the perception that taxation was mostly funding high living for the favored few.

Mandatory student fee systems are a sub-species of the taxation beast. Most colleges and universities these days have established a policy of adding on to the tuition, room and board, and other education-related fees, a “student fee” that provides the school with a substantial pot of money which is then doled out among various student groups on campus. Exactly how the money is divvied up varies, but the principle is the same as taxation: We’ll take your money, then other people will decide how it’s spent.

Over the years, student fee systems have led to plenty of litigation. In the leading case, Southworth v. University of Wisconsin Regents, the Supreme Court held that mandatory student fee systems had to be operated on a “viewpoint neutral” basis. That is to say, without discrimination in favor of some political parties or philosophies and against others. And just like the Supreme Court’s 2003 decisions on the use of racial preferences in admissions, Southworth leaves a vast expanse of gray area for university officials.

Legal “gray areas” usually lead to disputes and that was the case recently with the student fee system at State University of New York at Albany (UAlbany).

Each student at UAlbany is compelled to pay $80 per semester into a fund which is then allocated among campus groups according to a student referendum. As a result of the most recent referendum, $5 of each student’s fee went to the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), a left-wing activist organization. Several UAlbany students objected to being compelled to fund a group they regard as working against their interests, and the fact that they got to have a “say” in it by virtue of the referendum was no consolation. They sued.

The case was decided by federal district judge David Hurd on November 10. He ruled that the students were entitled to a refund of that part of their student fee that went to NYPIRG and that the referenda could no longer be used in allocating money to campus groups.

Judge Hurd wrote, “The whole theory of viewpoint neutrality is that minority views are treated with the same respect as are majority views. That is essentially what is at risk in this case – unpopular speech will be made more expensive than popular speech because the student association will subsidize the popular speech.” The facts of the case clearly supported Judge Hurd’s position. Whereas the leftist NYPIRG received $106,000 in 2003-04, the conservative group Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow received just $1,200.

While this decision is a step in the right direction, it still leaves just about as much gray area as before. There is a solution to this problem, but it isn’t one that the judiciary should impose. The solution is for schools to put an end to their mandatory student fee systems.

The central objection to mandatory student fees is that they encourage student organizations to adopt a socialistic mindset, thinking that they are entitled to support from a coercively obtained fund of money. Mandatory student fee systems are just a small-scale version of pork barrel politics at the state and federal level. It would be much healthier if colleges and universities sent a capitalistic message to students – if you need money for something you want to do, look to your own capabilities.

Student organizations have many ways of raising money. They don’t have to wait for the authority in charge of student fees to hand them some cash. Quoted after Judge Hurd’s ruling, the executive director of NYPIRG said, “We have other funding sources, but we fully expect the same level of funding on campus.” That’s the problem. Students expect the easy money.

Morally and legally, schools would be making the right move if they abandoned mandatory fees. One of the best lessons they can teach their students is that activities should be paid for voluntarily by people who value them, not by those who have no choice

George Leef is the executive director of the John William Pope Center for higher education policy.


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