Mandatory student service fees:

by By Barbara

Much has been written during the past decade regarding inflation’s effect on rising tuition costs in higher education. Mandatory student services fees, an educational cost also experiencing the deleterious effects of rampant inflation, have frequently come under fire in such discussions. Yet, little has been stated, at least in solid philosophical terms, regarding the rationale underlying the concept of mandatory fees. A major premise of this article is that mandatory student services fees, a taxation derived through representation, serve a unique and vital purpose in enhancing the quality and diversity of campus life. In supporting this rationale for a mandatory student services fee system, this article looks to both the origins and purposes of the fee system and to the method by which the fee is assessed and distributed. Both philosophic and pragmatic dimensions of this rationale will be explored using the University of Minnesota as a case study illustration.
In 1976, the University of Minnesota Task Force on Student Services Fees affirmed the principle of mandatory student fees, citing voluntary funding as unworkable. The task force argument was that a voluntary fee system would lead to incompatible ends — the avoidance of the fee combined with the continued demand for the services. To further support its position, the task force cited a Student Life Studies report that indicated a majority of students supporting the mandatory fee concept and structure.
The issue of mandatory fees was again questioned in the early 1980s by students and others at the University in response to the publication of a controversial, so-called humor edition of the fee-supported student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily. These parties argued that students had been forced, through a mandatory fee, to support a program to which they objected and with which they philosophically disagreed. They argued that this forced payment to an objectionable entity through a University-sanctioned system of fees constituted a violation of their individual rights as students and as citizens. In effect, some students have been compelled through a mandatory fee system to support financially a program or cause with which they disagree.
Such controversy based on the premise of individual rights seems inherent in a mandatory fee system. As long as this system is maintained and the organizations that it supports provide programs containing something more than “pabulum,” some resultant dissonance or student objections to the fee on grounds of unfair taxation is inevitable.
The University’s task, therefore, must be to provide sufficient rationale for a mandatory fee system, which outweighs this inherent compromise of individual rights. In doing so, the University must look to both the origins and purposes of the fee system and to the methods by which the fee is assessed and distributed. The University’s argument, it would seem, has essentially two dimensions — philosophic and pragmatic.
The philosophical position principally revolves around the issue of the locus of determination for the student activity fee and the University’s involvement in its mandatory nature. The concept of mandatory versus voluntary fee is, to a large degree, a “straw man” created by proponents of an individual rights position in order to enhance their argument. The fact is that the mandatory fee is only mandatory once it has been voluntarily recommended by a supposedly representative group of students and faculty, after considerable deliberation in an open setting. The real difference, therefore, between mandatory and voluntary fees is the method of voting for them — the former uses a representative or group system, the latter a poll of individual students at each registration. In effect, the fee represents and traditionally has represented a decision by students through their representative body to tax themselves for the common and community good. The fee, then, represents at its inception a voluntary commitment to assess the general population for services that enhance and enrich the student community.
This interpretation finds support both in historical and current perspective. The 1976 Task Force on Student Fees report indicates that “from the earliest fees charged for the Union, the Daily, and the school band, the records show that the fees have been instituted on the basis of recommendations from the student body.”
In the early days of the fee, new fees were added on the basis of petition because no formal fee committee then existed. A recent example of a student request for additional services provided through increased taxation is the Student Legal Service program, in which students requested and received permission to add a quarterly fee to provide a prepaid legal service for the student body.
This system is grounded in the best tradition of taxation by representation, by vote of representative bodies chosen by those being represented. At their inception, student services fees are not mandatory at all. If students disagree with the fee, one presumes they must attack the fee at its voluntary point — in essence, seek a political solution. If the argument can be proven, by those opposed to certain fee-funded entities, that those systems that provide protection for individual rights (i.e., a representative decision-making system) are not accessible or are unfairly biased and, therefore, render the fee involuntary, then the University must be obligated to intervene.
Obviously the process does not completely absolve the University of responsibility to monitor the entities funded by student fees. It would seem, however, that the institution’s principle responsibility rests in safeguarding the system from wanton use of funds to support organizations that fundamentally violate clearly held principles of the University and the state. Funding of patently racist or sexist organizations would seem to fit into this category. In these cases, however, the decision has to do with inclusion or exclusion from the fee, not the method of assessment.
These philosophical principles, to be sure, do not by themselves argue for the mandatory fee. Even if one accepts the basic volunteerism of the present fee system, the questions of its efficacy compared with a checkoff system (i.e. students check off, and thus, financially support only activities of which they approve) still remains. In other words, what is it about the mandatory fee system that gives it inherent advantages over the checkoff system?
The answer to this question is principally pragmatic. The Task Force on Student Fees expressed legitimate concern over the hypothesized circumstance of demand for student services unsupported by voluntary checkoffs.
The basic principle behind the fee system is to spread the cost of expensive services to all students in order to keep the cost from being prohibitive to individual users. In some cases, student fee payers bank their money (i.e., taking out insurance) against the time when they might need a specific service.
Clearly, Student Legal Service and Boynton Health Service are such entities. Other services are in the form of community fees — programs such as the Daily, the union, and recreational sports. These services represent, then, the collective assumption of cost, based on the principles that:
1) the provision of such services is an asset to the health and vitality of the community as a whole;
2) the cost spread over all students is manageable. If paid only by users, such cost is prohibitive, and, therefore, exclusive; and
3) the collection of individual fees for individual services and determination of eligibility for such services is unmanageable on a large campus.
This reasoning is not to imply that voluntary funds are inappropriate. Indeed, they are collected continually on the campus by various student organizations in the form of dues, program event fees, admission charges and so forth. On a micro-level, students routinely tax themselves for services and programs on a voluntary basis as they participate in events in organizations. That process is duplicated on a macro-level through the student services fees for programs and organizations that have community-wide impact and for which the cost only to users would be infeasible. For that reason, fee-funded activities more closely resemble a public golf course than a country club, a public swimming pool than a health spa. This distinction seems important for several reasons:
1) Elimination of institutional discrimination based on financial considerations in the University community.
2) Availability of opportunity for social, recreational and educational development for all students, in keeping with the consistent application of educational principles. If one subscribes to the notion that the University environment is constructed as an arena for testing new talents, making new contacts in a heterogeneous community, and developing lifelong interests, it seems impossible to justify those opportunities only for those who can or will pay fees. Furthermore, such fees would undoubtedly increase substantially, both in number and in potential dollar amount, under any voluntary checkoff system.
3) Provision of services that may be necessary, but not immediately so for all students, so that emergency care is not contingent on ability to pay.
Another pragmatic argument for maintaining mandatory student fees stems from the University’s liability for the activities supported through the system; such liability is based on the institution’s role in assessing and collecting the fee. The mandatory fee system presents both a burden and a tool for the University because it inevitably strengthens the University’s hand in controlling the activities and programs included under fee support. A checkoff system quite likely does little to absolve the University of this liability because it still is an active participant in the fee collection but quite clearly diminishes the University’s ability to affect the direction of services funded in this way. If anything, the mandatory system provides an effective accountability tool for those opposed to a particular organization’s behavior, one which would be far less effective in any checkoff or voluntary system.
Implicit in all of these arguments is the long-held principle of student development through participation, both in the programs funded by fee-receiving organizations and in the fee-setting decision process per se. The reduction or elimination of substantial opportunities for student participation because of the establishment of alternative funding methods clearly compromises this important educational tenet of the University.
It seems clear, then, that a system of mandatory fees inevitably submerges some student individual freedom for the good of the collective community. The conclusion to remain with a mandatory fee system implies that the University and its students have generally accepted the principle that certain community advantages outweigh the rights of individual students. The following principles, which have been cited throughout this article, seem to justify this position:
ù Mandatory fees spread costs for services over a large population, making available services that would otherwise be unattainable under a “fee for usage” funding system.
ù Mandatory fees assure equality of opportunity for student involvement, a basic tenet of an egalitarian educational community.
ù Mandatory fees avoid the seemingly impossible task of sorting out student eligibility for services based on individual fee system.
ù Mandatory fees assure a core program of co-curricular educational opportunities for student development by meaningful involvement.
ù Mandatory fees provide prepaid group insurance, primarily legal and medical, for a population unlikely to be able to fund such services individually.
ù Mandatory fees are established through an open representative system and represent, in both present and historical perspective, a conscious decision by students to tax themselves for the public good.
ù Mandatory fees provide the University with control over programs and organizations that would not be available in alternative funding systems.
In conclusion, the University of Minnesota supports mandatory student services fees, not because it endorses all the specific policies and programs carried out by the organizations funded through this system, but because it broadly endorses their collective usefulness to the community as a whole and to the quality, vitality and diversity of campus life. The mandatory fee system provides the fairest and most egalitarian process available for funding student services and programs. Indeed, the University of Minnesota student services fees process and product appear to be a compelling case study in Pareto optimality — the greatest good for the greatest number.

Barbara Pillinger is a University professor of student development and athletics and has served as the administrative liaison to the Student Services Fees Committee.