Check-off system lets students withhold fees from some groups

Eric Swanson

Most University students must pay Student Services Fees, like it or not.

But during registration they can opt out of paying fees for two groups that have political viewpoints.

Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow receive funds through what the University calls a check-off, or refuseable/refundable system.

Although the current system could be changed because of a 2000 Supreme Court ruling allowing such groups to be mandatory, University officials said this probably will not happen in the future.

Although many students like optional fees, some Student Services Fees Committee members have disagreed with the fees’ negative check-off system. It requires students to uncheck groups’ boxes to avoid payment: $4.13 a semester per group.

“We feel it is a dishonest way to obtain fees dollars and that it does not necessarily represent the students’ wishes. The negative check-off system is tantamount to stealing,” according to a Student Services Fees Committee 2002 minority opinion regarding the system.

According to the report, a neutral or positive check-off system should be used instead to force students to consciously fund each group, rather than clicking through each screen on the computer.

According to a 2003 Student Services Fees Survey, 37 percent of students did not know the MPIRG fee was optional and approximately 40 percent did not know that the CFACT fee was.

If these numbers stay the same in the next few years, the entire process could be changed, said June Nobbe, student development and leadership programs director.

“Every single year there is a faction to change the structure to a positive check-off,” Nobbe said.

She said the University is not going to change anything – including adding new optional groups – until the system is reviewed sometime in 2005. And even then, no changes have to be made, she said.

“The costs are astronomical to change the system because of the Peoplesoft software in use,” Nobbe said.

Lindsay Brown, student groups fees committee chairman and CFACT chairman, said administration will not let the system change.

“It costs tens of thousands of dollars to change something like that,” he said.

Both check-off groups defend the system, saying it is a fair way to obtain funding because it is refundable and optional.

MPIRG

“All other organizations have a mandatory fee students must pay whether they want to or not,” said Megan Wolf, an adviser for MPIRG, a lobbying group. “If you don’t want to fund us, you can call and ask for a refund.”

“(The negative check-off system) is a way for us to have a stable funding source while allowing people to opt out of the fee,” said Kari Rudd, MPIRG’s state board of directors’ chairwoman.

Rachel Bartleson, MPIRG executive director, said opponents who say the group is stealing attack the fees process simply because they do not agree with MPIRG’s ideology.

“I think that students are smart enough to know that they can check the ‘no’ box,” Wolf said.

MPIRG officials gave several examples of how a different donation system would not work to fund groups, including a botched project for a donation-funded study lounge.

Nine Minnesota schools fund MPIRG with an optional fee similar to the University’s, Rudd said.

Students who do not want to fund MPIRG, but gave money to them this semester, can call the MPIRG offices to receive a full refund.

CFACT

Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, founded in 2001 to focus on environmental issues, is similar to MPIRG but with different political views.

“We consider ourselves an MPIRG for the right,” said Dan Nelson, CFACT vice president and an administrative units fees committee member.

Although his group gains funding through the negative check-off-based system, Nelson said he does not agree with it.

“It irks me that there are students funding CFACT that don’t want to,” he said. “You think it would be an easy system to change.”

But he clarified, “CFACT is OK with any way the University wants to fund them.”

History

The refuseable/refundable system has been around for quite some time, Bartleson said.

In 1971, she said, a mandatory/refundable fee system was created for MPIRG to make things easier for students who do not agree with its mission.

It was changed to a refuseable/refundable system in 1974, Bartleson said.

The current Web-based system was instituted in a pre-emptive response to several related court decisions for lobby groups and has not changed since, said Tracy Smith of the University General Counsel’s office.

Optional fees process

Although the funding mechanism is different for check-off groups than it is for other student groups, they still must apply for fees and go before the Student Services Fees Committee to explain why continued support should be granted.

But Brown said the application process for check-off groups is a formality.

“We are guaranteed the option to have funding,” he said. “There is no trickery involved. The system is giving students the option.”