Rising student fees draw scrutiny

Rising student fees draw scrutiny

July 31st, 2011 By James Salzer/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in News

University of Georgia students enter the main library building on the first day of UGA's fall semester Monday, Aug. 18, 2003, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/University of Georgia, Paul Efland)

STUDENT FEES


Student fees at Georgia colleges have risen dramatically in recent years, in part because the Board of Regents tacked on a special fee to make up for state budget cuts. Below is the amount of fees collected by the university system schools:

• Fiscal 2007: $221.7 million

• Fiscal 2008: $242.8 million

• Fiscal 2009: $302 million

• Fiscal 2010: $384.4 million

• Fiscal 2011: $408 million *

• Fiscal 2012: $505 million *

• Estimates by the university system. Figures likely will be higher for fiscal 2011 and 2012.

Source: University system

When Georgia lawmakers began cutting state funding for colleges, university system officials responded by hitting up students in a big way.

Five years ago, the system raised about $221 million from student fees. This year, the figure will be closer to $500 million because of rising enrollment and higher fees meant to make up for reductions in state funding. While tuition is rising, fees are rising even faster.

Some students question a relatively new "special institutional fee" they see as a backdoor tuition increase. And state auditors have raised questions about how some student fees are being managed and spent.

Starting this fall, none of the mandatory fees - which run as high as $1,185 per semester - will be covered by the HOPE scholarship. That will increase the misery for students who had counted on the program to offset their escalating tab for a college degree.

Many students are asking more questions about how fee money - which goes for everything from golf courses and recreation centers with rock-climbing walls to parking, concerts and club activities - is being spent.

Georgia State University's student leadership has asked for an independent audit of activity fee spending. The student newspaper at Georgia Perimeter College battled school and student government officials to get information about spending. And a state audit found officials at a few schools using fees for questionable trips to Italy, Puerto Rico and elsewhere.

Sabastian Wee, editor of Georgia Perimeter College's Collegian newspaper, has questioned how fees were used at his school, even though much of it goes for activities supported by student government.

"I don't think the way they are spending the money truly benefits the student," Wee said. "A lot of it seems like a waste."

Colleges long have charged fees on top of tuition. But in the past few decades they have become an ever-larger part of the cost of getting a degree. Schools traditionally use fee revenue to pay for things students demand beyond basic academics, which mostly are funded with tuition and public money.

Some states have limited how much their public colleges can charge in fees, and some publish reports showing how the money is spent.

This fall, Georgia students will pay between $352 and $1,185 a semester in fees. On some campuses, fees will have risen by more than 40 percent in two years.

In Georgia, in most cases, students or student government leaders vote for the fees and back raising them for specific purposes.

But the biggest increase has come from a "special institutional fee." Students didn't have a vote on that fee, which is designed - like tuition - to help pay to run schools and isn't aimed at a specific non-academic purpose like the others.

The Board of Regents created the fee in 2008 to make up for the fact that state funding and tuition weren't keeping up with enrollment. The initial charge was $50 to $100 a semester, depending on the college. The fee doubled the next year. This fall, it will increase again, to a maximum of $550 per semester.

The Board of Regents included a provision to end the fee June 30. In one of his final interviews as chancellor last month, Erroll Davis said he doubted that would happen.

"The colleges have come to depend on this money," he said.

This year, the system is expected to take in more than $200 million from the fee. Ending it would mean the system, expected to receive about $170 million less from the state this year, would have to make up the $200 million either by cutting spending or raising the money some other way.

The increase has fallen at a particularly difficult time for students. For almost two decades, students with at least a "B" average have received full tuition and some book and fee money from the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program. However, the cost of the program was outstripping the lottery's ability to pay for it, so lawmakers changed the law this year and now students won't receive any fee money.

"As the costs go up, a college education gets further and further out of reach of some students," said James Dutton, GSU's student government president. "The kids from Southwest DeKalb, from Griffin, Ga., they look at it and say, 'I guess I am not going to college.'"

A state audit completed last year raised questions about how student fees were collected and used at several schools.

"We found that the Board of Regents student fee policies allow significant discretion on the part of each (Georgia university) regarding the use of student fee revenues," the audit said. "As such, they provide little assurance that fees are used in a manner that benefits the entire student body to the greatest extent possible even though all students are required to pay these fees."

The audit said that the revenue, expenditure and fund balance data submitted by several colleges was "incomplete, inaccurate and inconsistent."

The audit found a few cases of schools assessing fees that were supposed to be approved first by the Board of Regents but had not been, schools charging students money for meal plans and parking even if they don't live on campus or have cars, and huge balances - particularly at Georgia State, where the recreation fee had a balance of $10 million in 2010.

The state audit looked only at select universities, and auditors didn't list problems at every school. Students paying the fees, now that the HOPE scholarship isn't chipping in, may be the state's next line of defense against potential misuse.

"When people realized that a lot of the increase in our tuition and fees was in our fees, and that HOPE didn't cover it, that got a lot of people angry," said Katherine Paist, a rising junior at Georgia State University. "A lot of students and parents alike are watching the situation more closely."