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Friday, January 20, 2017

The shadow fees lurking in your tuition bills

While state law has put significant limits on MU's in-state tuition and mandatory fee hikes in recent years, unregulated supplemental fees have skyrocketed.

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Photo illustration of paying student bill on MyZou.

Jessi Dodge/Senior Staff Photographer

Dec. 6, 2016

When Ethan Calfee was deciding where to continue his college career, it was MU’s lively campus and affordable ticket price that sealed the deal.

Transferring from Northwest Missouri State’s pre-engineering program, Calfee also considered the University of Texas at Austin and Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.

UT, though, was out of his price range and too far from home, and Missouri S&T’s campus life didn’t appeal to Calfee. MU had both an exciting and diverse campus and tuition that he could afford.

Calfee is not alone in his assessment. Among the 100 “Best College Values” rated by Kiplinger’s magazine, MU ranked in the top third for total cost of attendance. It is also among the 20 most affordable public colleges in the Midwest.

The university has achieved these rankings thanks in part to the state’s Higher Education Student Funding Act, also known as HESFA, which was passed in 2007 and prohibits public universities from raising tuition and mandatory fees by more than the yearly increase in the consumer price index, or CPI. And mandatory fees, which include the student health fee, recreation fee and a few others, involve input and oversight from a committee of student leaders.

But when Calfee recently took a closer look at his bill from the university, he found an additional $984 in fees from this semester that he had no idea existed. Called “supplemental fees,” they are levied by the individual colleges on campus and in many respects are shrouded in secrecy.

Supplemental fees are not subject to HESFA, which means they can be increased each year by as much as the individual colleges deem appropriate. And, unlike mandatory fees, students have no input regarding the amount by which the fees are increased each year; nor do they have any say in how revenue from the fees is spent.

Since the implementation of HESFA, in-state tuition at MU has increased by 12.5 percent, while the supplemental fee for the School of Engineering has increased by 55.6 percent — more than four times as much — according to a Maneater analysis of past MU budgets.

“I get that I’m going to have to go into debt. I get that I’m going to have to work hard to make monthly payments,” said Calfee, who has taken out a handful of student loans and works at Shakespeare’s Pizza to make ends meet. “But at the very least, they should tell me what I’m paying for, right? At the very, very, very least, I should get an explanation.”

Bill Vega, the chair of the Student Fee Review Committee, understands Calfee’s frustration and confusion.

“I don’t think the fact that they’re charging these fees is the problem,” Vega said. “I have my problem with the opacity of the process, the lack of student input, lack of oversight and the lack of checks.”

Critical Audit

Nicole Galloway, Missouri’s state auditor, agreed with Vega. In an audit report released in August, Galloway criticized the UM System for both the increases in the fees and the lack of transparency surrounding them. The report cited a “significant growth of supplemental fees” compared to the “moderate growth rate of institutional costs.”

The audit found that since implementing HESFA, Missouri’s four-year public institutions had increased supplemental fees by 138 percent overall and 112 percent per full-time student.

The report also took issue with how “tuition and fee information provided by the institutions is not verified and documentation of the tuition review process is not always maintained.”

Alex Howe, treasurer of the Graduate Professional Council, realizes that the university’s budget is under pressure due to a combination of HESFA and maximum enrollment numbers.

“Given [HESFA], given the practical limits on enrollment, supplemental fees are the only pressure release valve that the campus has to make more money,” Howe said. “It’s not their fault. They need to have a budget. But no one is looking at supplemental fees.”

The Process and Inaction

At a February 2015 Board of Curators meeting, curators approved 18 UM system-wide supplemental fee increases for the 2016 fiscal year, including seven from MU. There was much discussion surrounding the fees, along with criticism from some of the curators.

“I don’t think these fees are particularly transparent and they make it very difficult for students to plan financially,” curator David Steelman said.

Brian Burnett, the UM System’s vice president of finance, explained how the fees are presented and approved.

“It’s really a two-step process,” Burnett said. “The deans have to go through the campus level review … then they have to come through the system review.”

Burnett went on to say that the fee proposals must demonstrate they are truly needed and will “meaningfully impact students.”

Former UM System President Tim Wolfe, who has since resigned, further defended the process in the meeting.

“We have to focus on quality, while balancing price and affordability,” Wolfe said. “It does give that unique revenue source to those programs that are in need to improve the quality or continue to maintain the quality of those particular programs.”

He added that the curators and the administration would “like nothing better than to not do this … [but] we run the risk of affecting the quality of our education and our research without these kinds of fees.”

Tracy Mulderig, the student representative to the Board of Curators at the time, voiced the concerns that she and other student leaders had about the fees.

“The sticker price is impossible for students to understand,” Mulderig said. “Future students are looking at tuition and campus fees in order to weigh the cost of attending our university. But these students do not get an accurate understanding of supplemental course fees until they receive their first bill.”

Curator Donald Cupps was surprised to learn that it took until the first bill for a student to learn what a supplemental fee is.

“If that’s true, that’s not good,” Cupps said. “And certainly I know that the university wants to have complete transparency and give them as much notice as possible.”

Despite taking issue with the fees and their opacity, Steelman still voted in favor of them.

“I am going to vote for these very, very grudgingly,” Steelman said. “And I really hope that we have a very serious discussion as a board and as an administration on the continuation of supplemental fees in lieu of a more transparent tuition.”

Yet, since that meeting where the curators unanimously approved the fee proposals, there has been no apparent effort among UM System leaders to change the way they handle supplemental fees.

Interview requests to the curators, the office of the UM System president, Burnett’s office and various MU deans went unanswered. John Fougere, chief communications officer for the UM System, emailed a statement saying the “campuses typically discuss fees with student groups and student feedback is considered when reviewing proposals.”

“While we appreciate the stated commitment to receiving student input on supplemental fees, we would encourage the administration to reconsider whether their current mechanisms for doing so are adequate,” Howe said.

Demand for Student Input

A 2014 report drafted by both the Graduate Professional Council and the Missouri Students Association outlined their grievances and presented a plan to create a college fee committee. The committee would be made up of various student leaders and would meet only to discuss and approve potential supplemental fees and increases.

Howe said such a committee could easily be integrated with the Student Fee Review Committee, which reviews the university’s mandatory fees.

The SFRC is made up of a student-appointed chair, two vice chairs, seven undergraduate students and three graduate students. Howe is a vice chair on the committee.

“MSA, GPC and SFRC are all onboard with putting supplemental fees under SFRC,” Howe said. “It’s an existing committee that has a track record of doing well with student fees, making good decisions and being representative of graduate, professional and undergraduate students.”

Vega agrees that student oversight is crucial, but he said smaller steps could be made in the short term.

“At the bare minimum, we could get on the cashier’s website, under the explanation of fees … we could get every supplemental and say here’s what it goes to and here’s why,” Vega said. “That should be already happening, but it’s not.”

After spending over a year and a half trying to learn about supplemental fees, Vega has never received an answer to how this money is spent.

“What is that doing for me?” Vega said. “Is that buying me more water bottle dispensers and drinking fountains, or is that compensating some of the faculty that are really integral to the operation of the college? There may be no shade, no wrongdoing, no ill will, but there’s no way to back that up. No one has any idea.”

Calfee thinks MU’s priority should be ensuring that students are kept informed and have trust in the university.

“At the very, very, very least, I should get an explanation … and if [students] can’t trust you, you don’t have a school,” Calfee said.

Edited by Emily Gallion | egallion@themaneater.com

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