Fees, cuts at the U: What else is new?

There is a definite reason why the University administration passes its budgets in the spring. Fiscally, it’s perfect because the University enacts its policies July 1. But the main reason why they choose spring to set the next year’s tuition rates and fees is because the administration catches most students sleeping at this time of year.
With graduation less than four weeks away, the last thing graduating seniors are thinking about is the tuition for next year. They’re out of here, so they couldn’t care less what agony the rest of us will face when we get our bills in the mail next September. Furthermore, everyone else is either thinking about finishing the year or their summer plans.
When the University’s Board of Regents approved Friday a University-wide tuition revenue increase of 7.5 percent in next year’s tuition, a few students and two regents actively went to bat against the increase. But in the final decision, the regents decided to raise the level of financial burden at a time when the financial aid program faces substantial cuts.
As if to add insult to injury, not only are tuition rates going up, but students in various colleges may be forced to pay fees to support campus computer labs — whether they use them or not. That forces those of us with computers at home to completely waste our money for a service we don’t need. Then there are students who don’t have computers at home because they can’t afford them. Now they will have to pay to use campus computers — a service they also probably can’t afford.
I appreciate campus labs for their resources and convenience. But most of all, I appreciate the fact that computer labs are one of the very few free services at the University. It’s great to just pop into a lab and check my e-mail or quickly type an assignment. If we have to have fees at all, it would be fair to charge students based on how much they use the labs.
Nevertheless, all students need access to computers because they must operate within the guidelines their professors set forth. Students are here to learn how to be professionals, and we should have access to the tools we need.
Computer lab fees are not a new notion to the administration. For nearly a decade now, plans to upgrade computer facilities and implement lab-access fees have been part of long-range proposals at the University. From 1988 to 1993, the administration proposed lab fees ranging from $30 to $75 per quarter. The last major crossroad was in 1993, when the Board of Regents decided to follow the policies of other Big Ten schools and allow free access to computer labs.
Currently, 30 percent to 35 percent of national engineering schools require computer fees from students. Even the University’s Institute of Technology requires a $100-per-year fee from its students for computer use. That policy, first implemented for the 1995-96 school year, did not come without much protest, however. IT students debated the issue for weeks, saying it was too great a burden to place on students all at once.
Even though everyone feels the pinch when costs increase, there is much more logic behind a computer fee for IT students than one for College of Liberal Arts or College of Education students. Consider the equipment that engineering students use. Furthermore, compare the computer programs that engineering students must have at their disposal to those needed by a liberal arts major. The complex nature and the sheer amount of time involved in engineering work is hardly comparable to the computer tasks required by a liberal arts class.
Colleges and universities around the country acknowledge this difference. Very few institutions of higher learning list computer fees in their fee packages. Unlike these schools, the University of Minnesota is allowing the need for revenue to overshadow its educational purpose.
So once again, the students have to make the sacrifices of the budget crunch. According to the proposal, beginning next year the CLA computer fees would add $45 to student services fees each quarter. The proposal even suggests this fee will increase to $75 per quarter within the next few years, which is a 60 percent increase. This amount will compound the damage of the already-approved 7.5 percent tuition revenue increase for the University.
Other University colleges have it rough, too. Their computer fees for next year could range from $35 to $100 per quarter. And in the past 13 years, tuition increases have not only exceeded the rates of inflation, but have also surpassed the consumer price index by 190 percent.
And what are we getting in return for our investment? Cuts. The University endured $30 million in cuts in June 1995. Many of the solid, professional programs on this campus are being wounded beyond repair — even after the administration promised that the departments that experienced the cuts would receive support later.
Unfortunately, the damage is already done. In last year’s scaling down of CLA, at least seven faculty positions in some of the school’s most acclaimed programs were left vacant — and won’t be refilled. Other departments are now facing the same problem. They don’t have enough money to cover demands. When someone leaves, no one has the money to replace them, so the faculty have to spread the work around and cover only the basic needs.
Many students and faculty still remember when CLA nearly cut the humanities and linguistics departments completely in 1991. And when CLA faces an approximate $30 million to 40 million budget shortfall in the not-too-distant future, several programs will undoubtedly have to take the fall.
The University’s primary goal ought to be maintaining an affordable, quality education. Students come to a state university because the state aid bears some of the tuition burden, making school more affordable for both those who intended to go to college and students who otherwise would be unable.
Once students get here, they need to have easy access to everything the University can offer. We are living in an age when technological links are more important than ever. Limiting such access will not only disenfranchise many students, but will make graduates from this institution less competitive in the real world.
When the cost of living is increasing by at least 3 percent each year and financial aid funds remain static, students will either be forced to work more, go further into debt or cut back on class hours. Is that the kind of message we want to send to incoming students?
To recklessly increase student tuition rates and fees, as the University has done for the past 15 years, is obscene. But what’s worse is the fact that the commitment to quality education is being thrown away in lieu of a commitment to economics.
Michelle Kibiger’s column appears every Wednesday in the Daily.