published Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Universities stack fees on tuition hikes

By Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sofia Lipko is just four semesters away from a graduate degree in teaching at Georgia State University. But instead of finishing, she says, she may have to drop out.

Lipko can’t afford the hike in college costs the State Board of Regents approved last week. While a 3 percent increase in tuition and an additional $250 in fees may seem small, they are just the latest annual boost in the price of her education, and like many Georgia students, she is struggling to keep up.

She already works full-time. She dines on ramen noodles. She’s had to apply for more loans because there’s less grant and scholarship money available.

“The future is looking bleak. We are not guaranteed jobs; how are we going to pay for all this debt?” Lipko said. “Times are different than they were for generations past. Nothing is guaranteed, everything is precarious and costs are through the roof.”

The bigger checks Georgia students are being asked to write aren’t just for tuition. Depending on which campus they attend, they also will pay between $352 and $1,185 a semester in mandatory fees this fall; at some campuses, those fees will rise by more than 40 percent over fall 2010.

Fees, in fact, are increasing faster than tuition at Georgia colleges. In-state tuition at the University of Georgia, for instance, increased by 62 percent from fall 2007 to this coming fall, while UGA’s mandatory fees increased by 94 percent. Fees alone raised $280 million among the 35 colleges in the University System of Georgia during the 2009 fiscal year.

Colleges long have charged fees, but it’s only in the past 20 years that they have become a standard expense to earn a degree in Georgia. Colleges typically use fee revenue to pay for things students demand beyond academics, such as buses, parking decks and recreational centers with saunas and rock-climbing walls.

But the biggest increase in fees for this fall is through a “special institutional fee” that students view as a euphemism for a tuition increase. While students have a say in creating most fees, this special fee was set unilaterally by the regents. Students, parents and lawmakers are demanding a better accounting of how this money is spent.

State cuts prompt fees

The special fee, initiated in 2009, has grown as state lawmakers have reduced support for public colleges.

Colleges aren’t alone in facing cutbacks; lawmakers have ordered all state agencies to operate with less money and cut spending as the state has struggled through the economic downturn. But they accuse the regents of failing to cut costs in the University System and instead burdening families with higher tuition and fees.

Studies show Georgia’s tuition and fees remain below the regional average of public colleges in the Southeast. Still, large hikes over the past couple of years have frustrated parents, students and legislators.

Lawmakers are scheduling hearings on a proposed constitutional amendment to limit regents’ power to set tuition and fees. House Resolution 383 would prohibit the regents from increasing tuition and fees at rates that exceed inflation without approval from the General Assembly.

Chancellor Erroll Davis admitted the increased costs could prevent some students from attending Georgia colleges. But, he noted, “a shortage of students has not been our challenge. Our challenge has been an excess of students and a shortage of funds.”

The University System of Georgia will operate without $346 million it had anticipated receiving for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Over the past decade, state funding dropped by about $1 billion total. At the same time, enrollment has grown by more than 100,000 students.

To offset those cuts, the regents created the “special institutional fee” in January 2009, charging students an extra $50 to $100 a semester, depending on the college. The fee doubled the following year. This fall it will increase by another $100 to $350 per semester, depending on the college.

Many students are not happy.

UGA junior Josh Paine said he understands adding an extra $6 to the existing $114 technology fee, because the college will use it to update the way students register for classes. But he doesn’t understand how the $450 special institutional fee he’s required to pay will be spent.

The money from the special fee becomes part of a college’s general revenue. But some student government associations are demanding more transparency on how that money is spent.

“We realize we have to have higher bills with everything going on, but we feel like no one is listening to us,” said Will Burgess, a student government leader at UGA. “We’re expected to make sacrifices but it all seems so top down. We pay all this money, and we really don’t know where it goes.”

What’s a “necessary” fee?

When state auditors looked at the issue in 2010 they concluded that most fees appeared appropriate, but said colleges needed to monitor better how the money is spent. Their report found eight fees at different institutions they said failed to get proper approval from the regents. Auditors found a few instances of questionable spending, such as when fee money was used in 2006 to pay for the University of West Georgia marching band — and a dozen “friends of the band” — to travel to Antigua. The faculty member involved was disciplined and ordered to pay back the money.

Most student fees, which are approved by the regents, are first endorsed by campus committees that are required to have at least four student members. Usha Ramachandran, vice chancellor for fiscal affairs, said most fees originate with students or colleges as they look for ways to attract and retain students. Student fees, for instance, support Georgia State’s new football program and will be used for the planned program at Kennesaw State

“Today’s students have items they’ve come to want and expect and these fees are a way to give it to them,” Ramachandran said.

Some are concerned over this race to offer perks to attract students. There’s increasing national discussion about whether these fees are necessary, said Paul Lingenfelter, president of State Higher Education Executive Officers, a nonprofit association based in Boulder, Colo.

The question, Lingenfelter said, is how much money colleges need to offer a quality college experience as they work to meet the expectations of students and parents.

Starting this fall, the Georgia Lottery-funded scholarship, which once covered all tuition and some money for books and fees for students who had at least a 3.0 GPA, will pay full tuition only for the state’s most accomplished students, about 10 percent of recipients. Others will receive scholarship money to cover 90 percent of current tuition rates — not the new, increased rates for next fall. No students will receive the book and fee money HOPE once provided.

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