All students pay, but few know where their fees go

Part one of a five-part series

Shannon Fiecke

AEditor’s note
This is part one of a weeklong series on the University student services fees process. The series will compare the University system to other schools’, examine fiscal accountability, discuss the budgets of the largest fees-receiving groups, and explain optional fees.

Although most students pay at least $580 in student services fees a year, few know where the money goes and who determines how it is spent.

“I suppose I could find out if I checked my bill,” said Anna Atendido, a fifth-year student unsure of what her fees money covers. She assumes it must include “all the stuff we take for granted.”

Almost two-thirds of students have not looked at a list of where their fees go, according to a 2003 survey from the Office of Student Affairs.

The Student Services Fees Committee, primarily responsible for setting and allocating the fees, is in the midst of determining next year’s amounts. Last year’s committee delegated approximately $40 million for this school year.

With so much money and so many services at stake, and many students knowing nothing about it, committee members and advisers urged students to become aware and get involved.

“They’re the ones paying for this,” fees adviser Aaron Asmundson said.

Lindsay Brown, student groups fees committee chairman, agreed. He described the fees committee’s power as almost “scary.”

“They could de-fund every group, or give them almost any amount,” he said.

The fees

Many fees appear on tuition bills. There are course fees, technology and collegiate fees that range from $11 to $400, and Student Services Fees.

The Board of Regents, the ultimate authority on Student Services Fees, defines them as providing “noninstruction activities and services that make significant contributions to student development.”

Big-ticket groups such as Boynton Health Service, recreational sports and Twin Cities Student Unions make up most of the Student Services Fee, which also covers myriad of other student organizations and services.

Besides these items, students are also assessed additional fees. These include the Minnesota Student Association fee for undergraduates and the international student fee for international students. Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow fees are optional.

The fees process

“I don’t believe the fees process is difficult to understand; it just takes time and effort,” said Brown, who has served on the fees committee for two years.

The fees process involves a lot of time, fees receiving groups and committee members said.

Near the end of fall semester, MSA and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly appoint fees selectors who choose a 13-member fees committee and seven alternates. MSA and GAPSA can each remove up to two committee members.

The fees committee is split into two: one group handles administrative units and the other deals with student organizations.

Under the regents’ guidelines, the administration appoints one representative to the administrative units committee and two to the student groups committee.

Groups requesting funds submit standardized proposals with budgets to the committee. They also give a presentation to the committee.

“We put a good amount of time into it,” said sophomore John Lukanen, a Disabled Student Cultural Center board member. He was one of five people who put his group’s proposal together over semester break and assisted with their presentation Friday.

Nigel Perrote, who helped present the American Indian Student Cultural Center’s request, was nervous and would have liked more time to prepare, but thought it went OK.

“They really want to know how you’re spending your money and that’s a good thing,” he said.

The student groups committee has subcommittees that hear presentations. After deliberating, they make a recommendation to the full committee.

After the committees release their fees recommendations, they hold hearings for the public to respond.

“It definitely has an impact,” said Dan Nelson, an administrative units committee member who admits members are not all-knowing and like input. He also said a student who shows up to support less funding would get noticed because such cases are unusual.

Nelson, a four-year committee member, and Brown encourage students not associated with requesting groups to come to public hearings. They will be held during the first week of March.

“I’ve yet to talk to a student that doesn’t believe they’re paying too much, yet I’ve never talked to a student who voices their opinion at a public hearing who isn’t a part of a student group,” Brown said.

The fees committee uses set criteria to examine requests – such as a group’s breadth of service to students and compliance to their budget. The committee must make decisions with no regard to groups’ viewpoints.

Asmundson said the committee is also supposed to give no preference to groups who have received fees before. However, Nelson said new groups have more difficulty obtaining funding and has seen the committee give preferential treatment in the past.

After the committee releases its recommendations, which are reviewed by advisers for legality, a senior administration official also reviews them before giving them to the regents for approval.

“Very rarely does the administration change what the committee has decided,” said Asmundson, who said it is also unlikely the regents would make alterations.