University of Minnesota students who are taking most of their classes online this fall may still have to pay a fee for campus services, even if they are not physically present to use them.

The Board of Regents on Thursday updated the school’s policy on student services fees — which cost Twin Cities students about $450 per semester — to count online classes that would traditionally be held in person toward the six-credit threshold that triggers the fee. The previous policy assessed the fee only to students taking six credit hours of in-person instruction or more.

Classes that have always been delivered online will continue to not be counted toward the fee threshold. The temporary policy change, which regents approved on a 9-3 vote, will apply only to the coming academic year.

“The importance of student services is particularly elevated in our pandemic environment, both for students on campus and for those accessing these services remotely,” said Rachel Croson, the U’s executive vice president and provost. “The availability of these services to students as a whole, even if a particular student does not utilize them, is also pivotal.”

Most services funded by the fees, from health care and sexual misconduct prevention programs to student groups and fitness facilities, will be accessible virtually. Still, some regents and students argued that those who aren’t on campus will not be able to use the services to their fullest extent and should therefore pay a reduced fee.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of fall classes offered at the University of Minnesota will be taught fully online. As of this week, about 70% of classes were scheduled to be online, with the other 30% to be taught in person or in a hybrid manner. About 60% of students on the Twin Cities campus had at least one in-person or hybrid class on their schedule as of Tuesday.

“I don’t think it’s a good look publicly for the university to say, ‘Even though we’re only going to have a relatively small percentage of on-campus opportunities for our students, we’re still going to charge them the full [price],’ ” Regent Darrin Rosha said. He and Regents Michael Hsu and Randy Simonson voted against the updated fee policy.

The semester fees are charged to students on each of the U’s five campuses; Morris charges $470, Duluth $314, Crookston $263 and Rochester $168.

The Twin Cities campus takes in nearly $36 million annually from the fees. More than half of the semester fee that Twin Cities students pay goes to fund the campus’ health care clinic and recreational and wellness center.

Hsu offered an amendment during Thursday’s board meeting that would have reduced the fees on all five campuses by 10%, in acknowledgment that many students may not use the services in person.

Regent Steve Sviggum, vice chairman of the board, pushed back, saying the fees were already baked into the school’s 2021 budget. If fees were reduced, he said, the university would have to make up for the lost revenue with further salary reductions, furloughs or even a tuition increase. And he threatened to propose a tuition increase amendment if Hsu’s amendment passed.

“I really don’t think it’s appropriate for Regent Sviggum to make threats about future motions if this motion passes,” Hsu said.

Hsu’s amendment failed on an 8-4 vote, with him, Rosha, Simonson and Regent Mike Kenyanya voting in favor of the fee reduction.

University of Minnesota junior Jack Flom said the fee policy is “not fair” to out-of-state students who cannot make full use of the services. Flom, who is studying political science and urban studies, felt a discount would have been more appropriate.

U senior James Farns­worth countered that it is “very reasonable” for students to pay the fees given the unprecedented circumstances. Services such as the U’s Boynton Health clinic and Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education, which provides support for survivors of sexual assault and relationship violence, rely on the fees for funding.

“We all need to remember what benefits from student fees and what student fees fund,” Farnsworth said. “The institution still has costs.”


Twitter: @ryanfaircloth