State lawmakers are considering making a portion of mandatory student fees at public universities optional, in an effort to make college more affordable.

How much would it take off the total tab if the bill were approved?

An analysis of tuition and fee data for Minnesota’s public two-year and four-year schools shows that, on average, it might cut about 11 percent of in-state students’ bills, or maybe $600 a year.

The bill, currently making its way through the House, would only cover fees for “non-instructional student programs, activities, groups or services,” so the actual amount that students would save could be less.

The data used for this story were provided by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. The data included a single number for fees charged to all students, but doesn't include college- or department-specific fees that some students must pay. The data break down how much of the fees were for instructional versus non-instructional.

At the University of Minnesota, students pay, on average, about $1,700 annually in fees, about 12 percent of the total tab.

Separate data from the University of Minnesota show about $864 of that amount goes to non-instructional things like student groups, health services and recreation centers.

At other Minnesota institutions of higher learning, the percentage of the total tab that goes to fees varies from place to place.

On the high end, Winona State University students pay about $2,000 per year, or 22 percent, toward fees for non-instructional purposes such as student government and laptops.

Normandale Community College’s share of the bill that goes toward fees is the second highest in the state, though on average a smaller share of community colleges’ bills goes to fees compared to larger four-year institutions.

On the lower end are schools like Northwest Technical College-Bemidji and the University of Minnesota-Morris, where fees make up less than 10 percent of the total bill.

Fees at all public schools in Minnesota have stayed at roughly the same percentage of total cost since 2007.

According to the University of Minnesota, the share of non-instructional fees there has gone up slightly since 2008, when the yearly student services fee was $672 and tuition was $8,500.

Compared to other schools in the Big Ten, the University of Minnesota is about in the middle of the pack in terms of the percentage of total cost that fees account for.

The bill’s author, Rep. Drew Christensen, R-Savage, has said that the mandatory fees are unfair to students who don’t participate in student groups, and could make some students take out additional loans.

Christensen, a 2015 U of M graduate, has also authored a bill that would require a vote by the student body before any increase in student fees takes effect.
Students at the University of Minnesota have already called on lawmakers to withdraw the bill.

“This is not a policy students have asked for, as it would result in the diminishment of the quality of our educational experience and jeopardize critically needed student services,” a letter signed by 60 students read.

Several Supreme Court cases have challenged the place of mandatory fees. In a 2000 case involving the University of Wisconsin, the court ruled that students have the right to not pay fees that fund groups they object to if the university distributes money in a “viewpoint discriminatory” manner.

And to be sure, most schools allow students to request that their fees be waived. Some colleges allow for reduced fees in certain cases.

Ethan Nelson is a student at the University of Minnesota on assignment for the Star Tribune.

Data Drop is a weekly feature that uses data analysis and visualizations to explain, surprise, inform and entertain readers on topics relevant to Minnesotans. Do you have an idea you'd like us to explore? Contact MaryJo Webster