Fees that help pay for health and recreation centers, school newspapers, student government, collegiate athletics and other campus groups would be optional at Minnesota’s public colleges and universities under a measure moving at the Capitol.
It’s included in a broader, $3.2 billion higher education budget bill that the House passed earlier this month. Lawmakers are now working to finalize a spending plan for public campuses that they will send on to Gov. Mark Dayton.
The student fee proposal originated with Rep. Drew Christensen, R-Savage, who said his aim is to drive down the soaring cost of higher education.
Some university administrators and students say making the fees optional could just push those charges onto tuition bills, or threaten the livelihood of vital student groups and services. But Christensen said the costs are unfair to students who don’t want to participate in those activities.
“Students having to work extra jobs to pinch pennies and work their way through college don’t necessarily have time to participate in these student groups and are having to work extra hours or take out more in student loans to be able to afford these student fees,” he said.
Fees vary from campus to campus. At the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, students pay $432 per semester. Of the $33 million in revenue the fees generate each year, more than 90 percent goes to support the student health service, recreation and wellness facilities, the student union and a sexual-assault counseling center.
About 3 percent goes to campus media organizations, like the Minnesota Daily newspaper and Radio K, the student-run radio station. Four percent is distributed among student groups ranging from the Mock Trial Association to the Multifaith Student Council to an alpine ski team.
A student advisory group decides how to divvy up the money, and makes recommendations about the total cost of the fees. Megan Sweet, chief of staff in the University of Minnesota Office for Student Affairs, said students making those decisions in recent years have never recommended that the fees become optional.
“Right now, students participate in the process and all students can find online what these fees go to support,” she said. “If we start rolling this into tuition or if we have to create a sort of pay to participate system, it becomes less transparent.”
Sweet said other campuses in the University of Minnesota system use the fees for a variety of purposes. In Duluth and Morris, they help fund athletic programs. Campus media outlets would likely be the hardest hit by lower fees at the Twin Cities campus; student activity fees now make up 39 percent of the Minnesota Daily’s budget.
A hearing on the issue in March attracted students from colleges around the state who all spoke in opposition to the bill. Students from smaller community and technical colleges said they were particularly worried, because student government organizations and other groups play a major role in building a sense of community on campus.
Charles Karter, a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and an Army veteran, said the Veterans Upward Bound program on his campus — funded in part by student activity fees — has been critical to preparing him for a career after serving in the military.
“If we presented to you that you had to get a taxpayer referendum anytime you wanted to raise taxes, or you could opt in or opt out of taxes to pay for state government, I imagine it would cause great destruction to your institution,” Karter said. “We don’t want to see that happen to ours, either.”
Christensen, a recent University of Minnesota graduate, said he agrees that student groups are an important part of the college experience. While getting his degree he participated in two: student government and Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, a group that advocates for limited government regulation on environmental issues and against policies based on climate change research.
But he’s concerned colleges are disguising the full cost of education by paying for groups and campus operations out of fees rather than tuition. He said its unfair that students who don’t take advantage of those offerings have to pay for other students to do so.
Under the student-fee provision, the University of Minnesota would be penalized if it implemented a mandatory fee; the state would drop its funding by the amount the university collected in activity fees.
“It’s not that it’s the silver bullet, this isn’t going to suddenly make college affordable, but it helps,” Christensen said.