Fee Fi Fo: Tackling the student fees giant

Heather Bryant and Kelsey Gobroski/Sun Star Reporters
April 3, 2012

From the UA president’s office to the White House, talk of a college education has never been more prevalent. Patrick Gamble spearheads UA’s “Stay on Track” program, aimed at getting students to graduate in four years. President Barack Obama has made college education a cornerstone of his administration. “A world-class education is the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs but whether America can out-compete countries around the world,” Obama said in an address last year.

Yet the cost of a college education continues to rise, in most cases at more than double the rate of inflation. A recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune highlighted the fact that Americans over the age of 60 still owe about $36 billion in student loans. The current generation looks to fare far worse.

Tuition and fee costs rose 8.7 percent nationwide in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the College Board, a non-profit education advocacy group. Public four-year universities in California saw a 21 percent increase in tuition and fees. Across the country, students took to the streets by the thousands to join Occupy protests. Obama addressed the rising costs of college in the State of the Union address.

The recent nationwide concerns and protests focus on rising tuition costs. In the background, universities — including UAF —  lean on another pillar of revenue: fees.

UAF requires students to pay 10 fees aside from materials and lab fees assessed by specific courses. A full-time student can pay more than $700 in fees per semester. Over the course of a college career, that adds up to thousands of dollars. Yet most students have no idea where that money goes. Students pay these fees with a promise from the university that they will be able to trace how the money benefits their health services, their student experience and the sustainability of their campus.  But confusion abounds about exactly what happens to these funds, how they’re used and whether the departments and organizations that collect, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars use this funding wisely and to the benefit of UAF’s students.

“To a large extent I don’t think there is a consistent process for re-evaluating the fees,” Chancellor Brian Rogers said. “What tends to happen is that’s it’s easier to leave it where it is than to go through that analysis.”

Raising tuition requires back-and-forth discussion between the Board of Regents, the UA president, staff, students and the public. Unlike a tuition increase, a UAF student fee is relatively easy to implement. It can be done in one of three ways:  the UA president or the Board or Regents may impose a fee, the president may authorize the chancellor of an individual campus to levy a fee at his or her discretion, or a proposed fee can be instituted by a vote of the student body. Any of these methods takes less time and fewer steps than a tuition increase.
Over the next few issues, The Sun Star will track student fee dollars. Starting this week, we’ll publish stories that tease apart the intricacies of each fee. The Sun Star reviewed financial information from the past year for each group that levies a fee on students. Each story will discuss a fee’s origin, amount, increases and usage. The Sun Star aims to shed light on a system that often spends student money in shadows.
Three weeks ago, The Sun Star started an ongoing online survey to gauge how much students know about UAF’s fee system. One respondent replied that there isn’t much fee information out there, and another had to ask fellow students for clarification.
“There are too many fees that are unrepresentative of the student body as a whole,” one student said.

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