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Friday, April 20, 2007 | The University of California charges no tuition for state residents. The state’s blueprint for higher education forbids it.

So, over the years, the university has developed an intricate system of fees that allows it to supplement money from state taxpayers by charging California students money without quite calling it tuition.

But in recent years, even those fees have not been enough to fund the programming the University of California, San Diego, says is essential to maintain a vibrant student life. So UCSD’s administrators and student leaders have teamed up in an unprecedented campaign to convince students to voluntarily increase the amount of money they are required to pay each year.

That campaign reached a new high in January, when the undergraduate student body, faced with the prospect of a trimmed down athletics program, voted to more than triple a student fee used to fund the university’s sports teams. The fee will total nearly $330 next year per student. Two weeks ago, a committee suggested that, in light of the student vote, the university drastically cut its own funding for the athletics department.

If approved, the proposal would be the clearest example of a phenomenon student leaders have increasingly blamed for helping make the state’s elite university system unaffordable: A growing reliance on students to, themselves, fund many of the essential campus services that used to be supported by state and university dollars. In addition to raising the cost of attending the university, the trend is also changing the traditional relationship between students and administrators by giving students more control over how their campus is run.

“I don’t think students should be financially responsible for a lot of the things we’re paying for,” said Garo Bournoutian, the president of the campus’s Graduate Student Association and chair of the committee that authored the proposed budget cut for the athletics department.

In January, Bournoutian opposed the fee referendum, even though, as a graduate student, he won’t have to pay it. But now, with undergraduates set to provide more than $3 million for sports, he believes the university should spend its remaining fee revenue on other important priorities, like increasing programs that improve psychological health and services for disabled students.

A Matter of Dollars

Under the state’s higher education system, taxpayers pay for more than two-thirds of the estimated $20,000 it costs for each student to attend a UC campus. Students — and their parents — pay the rest.

But to get around the tuition-prohibition, the university breaks down its mandatory fees into two separate categories, depending on what they’re used to pay for. “Education fees” pay the salaries of faculty and the cost of running the university. “Registration fees” pay for all of the other services the university needs to actually keep the students there, from psychological support programs and golf carts to transport disabled students to tutoring programs and athletics.

Since 1993, the earliest year for which UCSD has digitized records, education fees have grown by more than 97 percent, and now total just over $5,400 each year. Registration fees, by contrast, have stayed nearly flat at $735. And in recent years, state funding has gotten more difficult to come by.

So, to pay for some of the programs previously funded by state dollars and registration fees, the university has tried a new approach: Getting students to approve new user fees for services they wish to support.

In the same period of time, the amount of fees created by the students themselves via referenda has grown more than four-fold and will total nearly $700 next year, almost one-tenth of all fees a student must pay in order to enroll in classes. Some of the fees are paying off the debt for constructing one of the university’s central hang-out spot, while others fund sports facilities and campus events.

For university administrators, the distinction between fees they impose and the fees students impose themselves is important because self-assessed charges go above and beyond their approved budgets. Having voluntary fees gives the university more money to spend on services than it could otherwise, after maxing out how much it can require students to pay.

Though the UC Board of Regents limits the maximum cost of attending a UC campuses, students can pay more if they want to if by simply voting for more fees. Administrators describe the self-assessed fees as a triumph of democracy, representing the will of the student body that votes on them, while student leaders say they often have little choice but to pass the fees demanded by administrators. That is what happened with the latest athletics fee, they say.

If students failed to approve the new fees, administrators warned, the university risked expulsion from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division II and seeing the total number of teams cut.

“You put students in those positions, where they have to increase their fees because they have no choice, and the university absolves itself of the responsibility, because it says, ‘Hey, look, students passed this,’” said Harry Khanna, UCSD’s outgoing student body president.

Pride for the campus teams, and pressure from athletes, made it difficult to say no to the new fees, Khanna said, though student leaders had no idea that the university would move to cut its own funding for athletics once the referendum passed.

Administrators, for their part, agree that students have volunteered to step up in the face of tough budget times.

“The perception that the funds from campus-based fees have in some cases been used to replace funding that has been there before is correct,” said Ricardo Vazquez, a spokesman for the UC Office of the President.

UCSD Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Joseph Watson, who will make the final call on how much of its own money the university will contribute to the running of the sports program, said he fully expects more referenda to go before students to fund things like the campus’s psychological counseling services, an urgent need highlighted by this week’s shooting at Virginia Tech.

Turning to students, Watson said, is a politically safer alternative for the university system’s president and regents than raising already established fees, which entails fighting opposition from students, parents and state politicians.

“It is far from desirable,” Watson said. “I think we would function better as a university if the registration fee was available to cover student needs. But in its absence, the only option is to have students vote on a campus-based fee.”

He added: “I see no other way to providing discretionary student services to students.”

This year’s athletics vote came in a long series of tax-and-spend democracy at the university. Last week, students agreed to voluntarily pay $21 per year to fund community service opportunities and programs designed to bring and retain more underrepresented students, an effort that was previously funded with state dollars. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut state support for the outreach efforts when he took office, arguing that there was little empirical data to support their effectiveness.

In 2004, students also voted to pay for the construction of two new student centers, and in the early 1990s, supported the construction of the university’s large athletics complex.

Nor has UCSD been alone. Like the UC, the California State University System has struggled in recent years to balance its budget, and since 2002, students at San Diego State University have voted on nearly a dozen referenda — though nearly all of them failed — to pay for things like scholarships for students wishing to study abroad, outreach efforts and a new student health facility. In 2004, they voted to build and operate a new swimming pool.

“Obviously, with a growing school, we have growing needs,” said John Ly, the student body’s outgoing vice president of university affairs at San Diego State.

A Changing Relationship

At San Diego State, the student government controls an enterprise that generates almost $20 million in annual revenue, and runs the operation of the Cox Arena. The students also administer many of the approved referenda fees.

At UCSD, though, students have long complained that while campus administrators continue to come to them for funds, they remain unwilling to cede control over the programs students decide to fund.

But that relationship is now changing, thanks in large part to a grand compromise birthed by the recent athletics fee vote. In exchange for allowing the vote to proceed, UCSD’s student government demanded that the university give some of the administrative control directly to the students. Desperate for money, the university eventually agreed.

As part of that arrangement, students will now have to review major capital improvement projects funded by their fees, and will even be able to comment in the performance evaluations of certain university administrators. In other words, students will help run the very university they attend.

The compromise gives little to the people likely to pay for whatever fees students vote to pass: their parents.

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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