Another Battle in the Student Fees War

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 federal court in New York threw another wrench into the already convoluted legality of student fees.

In Amidon v. Student Association of the State University of New York , a Second Circuit appellate court 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.

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