Poma: The Elusive Purpose of the Student Success Fee Leaves Transparency to be Desired


(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Sasha Poma, Assistant Opinion Editor


Colleges charge a lot of money, and while everyone who attends college knows that, the smaller fees that are added to tuition pile up fast. But not every student understands precisely what their payments fund. Descriptions such as “miscellaneous” and “additional fees” found on the University of Utah’s Cost of Attendance page are more confusing than clarifying about where students’ hard-earned money goes each semester. Fees are slapped onto our tuition every year, and we deserve more upfront transparency regarding those expenses. We need to have a say in where the money is going and why.

The U first added the “student success fee” to student tuition bills in fall semester of 2017. Some students might not even notice the extra $30 fee, but low-income students might feel it a lot — especially with how sudden the addition was. When factoring in mandatory fees, special program fees and more, students should not be blindsided by budgeting purposes. The problem was not necessarily the charge itself — it was the fact that no one knew about it until they logged on to pay tuition.

These problems don’t just happen at the U. Many top universities have charged their students seemingly random fees with little notice ahead of time. Therein lies the problem — the lack of transparency when new fees are applied.

So where do these student fees go? At the U, students need to dig deep to find an in-depth breakdown of what happens to the money we pay. And more frighteningly, most students don’t know where to access it — that is, if they even know that they can. Some fee categorizations are linked to the webpage students are directed to when paying tuition online, but student success fees and additional amounts are not listed.

Perhaps additional information about fees should be explained better during incoming student orientation. That alone would increase transparency and trust among students and the university. Students will benefit by knowing what parts of our tuition and fees go towards our college experiences. At this time, the U has a “Truth in Tuition” open house which proposes and outlines increases in tuition and where the fees might go. But we need this information to be more widespread — especially now when there’s a lot of uncertainty as to how our fees will be utilized in light of recent COVID-19 related events.

The Daily Utah Chronicle has reported on student success fees, finding that most of it allegedly goes towards counseling and mental health services. But on the breakdown page, mental health is woefully low on the list. Out of the thousands of dollars paid, only $15 dollars per student reportedly goes to mental health. The top three expenditures include computing, facility usage and, to no surprise, athletics. Computing includes Wi-Fi and access to technology, which is a reasonable campus need. Facility usage is also a given, considering that old buildings need to be maintained or rebuilt altogether.

Given how many students view sports as a core part of their U experience, few could imagine forgoing athletics and tradition in exchange for lower tuition. And other colleges across the U.S. fund their sports and fan culture through tuition and student fees. But the problem is that the university does not sufficiently provide this information upfront. Plus, there are other meaningful aspects of the university identity that deserve more funding, such as mental health, the arts, faculty and even student media.

Funding has the potential to be skewed when we don’t know about it, and so we should seek to give ourselves a larger voice in conversations about these fees. The price of tuition grows dramatically every year, and that should not go unchecked. Other American students actively demanding transparency, including California State University students, who rallied against the student success fee added to their bills in 2014. As a result, CSU has an entire webpage dedicated to carefully outlining the process of deciding the fees, where it goes, who decides and other important information. The U should implement something like this on our campus website, where everyone can see it instead of hoping they stumble upon it by happenstance.

Speaking out on campus shouldn’t be left to students in the ASUU — especially when so little there actively changes — we must remember we are a part of this university, too. Things will only change if students take this matter seriously. We shouldn’t shrug fees off and assume they are being used responsibly without checking. Our payments will only be well-managed if we take initiative and approach the university and ASUU about how we want them used.

While some strides are being made in the transparency of our tuition and surprise fees, there’s still a lot to be desired. These breakdowns and meetings should not be hard to find — they should be sent to us (and students need to do their part and pay careful attention). If the only function of fees is to divert tuition increases without actually raising tuition costs, that’s not right. With more openness, we can better understand how both the students and the university we attend are being affected by these fees.


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