College Student Fees: Unnecessary or Essential?

Posted By Terri Williams on February 16, 2017 at 9:36 am
College Student Fees: Unnecessary or Essential?

The cost of college has reached shockingly, appallingly, disturbingly high levels, and there are no new adverbs left to describe the staggering amount of money needed to pursue a four-year degree. A recent report by Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University, reveals that student fees are 20% of the total cost of tuition at the average four-year public college or university.

Many schools charge student fees to cover the costs associated with having an athletic program. According to data from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2014 (the most recent year available), the yearly amount of student fees used to subsidize athletic programs include the following:

Student Fees for Athletic Programs Institution
$2,283,329 New Jersey Institute of Technology
$3,093,346 Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis
$4 830,946 University of California at Riverside
$5,297,103 University of Texas-Arlington
$7,778,859 State University of New York at Stony Brook
$8,416,055 Longwood University
$92,275,953 Indiana State University
$17,598,102 Georgia State
$19,431,295 University of California-Davis
$20,026,979 Florida International University


However, at some of the schools with the most successful athletic programs (such as Clemson, Ohio State, and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa) students do not pay fees to subsidize athletics.

Fees can vary by school. According to New York Times data, the University of Wisconsin, Madison charges a $1,652 meal plan administrative fee; two of the required fees charged by the University of Mary Washington include $2,176 for academic activities, and $3,622 for student services. Fees at UCLA include a $324 instructional enhancement initiative fee, a $216 undergraduate students’ association fee, a $51 PLEDGE fee, a $63 student union fee, a $113 seismic fee, and $107 for the student programs, activities and resources complex.

The University of Chicago charges a $1,128 student life fee, and students can also be charged up to $150 in late fees and in late payment fees. In addition to tuition, The University of Cincinnati charges full-time, per term fees for the following courses: STEM disciplines and health programs: $215; business: $500; design, architecture and planning: $750; engineering and applied science: $504.

Kelchen’s report notes that some schools – such as the University of Massachusetts, Amherst – are increasing fees while maintaining tuition rates because revenue generated by tuition is funneled to the state, whereas the school can keep any revenue generated by fees. As a result, he writes that tuition is flat, while UMass-Amherst has tripled fees since 2000.

The good, the bad, and the ugly student fees

Daniel Press, the Olga T. Griswold Professor of Environmental Studies and executive director of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz, believes fees serve a purpose, and students have a voice in deciding some of them.

Press tells GoodCall® “Fees are not always generated by the university, and in the University of California system, students have the option of placing new fees on a ballot measure to be voted on by currently enrolled students.”

At UCSC, Press says that 25% of the student body must turn out to vote, and a simple majority is needed for the fees to pass.  Some of the measures passed by UCSC students over the years include:

  • A $10 fee each quarter to maintain the Student Union, Student Media Center and Redwood Building; the bill replaces part of an existing fee set to expire in 2017
  • A $30 fee each quarter to pay for staff, equipment, and repairs to the OPERS facility, including resurfacing the basketball court and tennis court, and replacing the pool fence and pool filtration system.
  • Increasing the learning support services fee by $5.36 per quarter to provide tutoring and group learning sessions in such subjects as math, computer science, engineering, and chemistry.

Press believes these fees are a good thing. “Our students have repeatedly voted to tax themselves in order to fund programs that are in their general interest, such as longer library hours, better health center facilities, campus sustainability, and learning support.”

On one hand, he believes it is appalling that students would have to pay for what was once considered basic services. “But that’s the reality of public higher education today, and state support provides less than a quarter of the budget to run this campus, so all of us in the campus community look to other sources of funding for things that really matter to us.”

He admits that these types of fees are not as high as many of the fees garnering attention at other schools. However, to him, the issue is not schools reducing fees. “I think the larger question is whether state legislatures should better support their public higher education institutions, and not surprisingly, my answer is yes, they should.”

This doesn’t mean that Press wants to give schools free reign to continue increasing fees, but he says that sometimes, the fees pay for essential services. “On our own campus we have used grant money and some of our own resources to set up food pantries for students that don’t have enough to eat – a shockingly big problem on many campuses.”

Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, tells GoodCall® it is not uncommon for schools to add a fee component that increases college costs by 10% to 15%.

Justification for student fees?

While some student fees may be frivolous, even the ones that appear to be justifiable are debatable. “For example, when schools build new computer labs, they either roll the cost into tuition, or they charge a fee to cover the cost.” However, Vedder says that is not how most businesses operate. “If a company stated that they were going to charge more for their product because they had to buy new equipment, consumers would not accept that rationale.”

Although some schools such as UCSB allow students to vote on measures, Vedder believes it’s still a problematic situation. “If a student is studying abroad for a year and they’re still paying a fee for the rec center – even though they’re out of the country – they may not think the fee is fair.”

Vedder says comprehensive fees are troubling because they’re not itemized so students don’t really know what they’re paying for. “If they’re paying for the school’s athletic programs, and they don’t even attend any of the games, I’m sure many students may not want to bear this cost.”

So what about fees for services students use? Vedder says some fees are very specific. For example, only students taking a course with a lab will pay a lab fee. “However, it could still be argued that as much tuition as students pay, the school should pay for the lab. Why should that be an extra cost?”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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