Fees: The Gobbledegook of Higher Education

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

I am frequently asked by educators how my school handles the issue of fees.

Something that is an ongoing issue in academia but receives relatively little notice outside of the profession is fees. Generally speaking, fees are whatever student pays over and above their tuition. Typically, the tuition of a school is published in a news article, even though fees at public colleges can sometimes add up to more than tuition. The primary time that fees come to the fore is when an an angry bill payer wants to know what the heck he/she is paying for, or why.

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Some have an obvious purpose: what the student pays for housing or food is pretty clear, and is nearly always broken out on the student’s bill. But a student’s bill also has other fees – sometimes a lot of different fees in relatively small amounts, and sometimes large vaguely–named fees with purposes that are not clear. At my own school, in addition to tuition, housing, and meals, students also pay additional fees like an “Innovation Fee,” a “Technology Fee,” and others. My daughter attends Wichita State University, a very fine school, and her bill includes similar fees, some with names that correspond to obvious purposes, some not.

These fees are adjusted constantly, in the amounts charged and the names of the fees, and their purposes. This makes comparisons between schools more difficult, and this practice has resulted in more stringent regulations about disclosure of the bottom-line cost of attendance.

So why are fees adjusted so much? The answer is partly that these fees are constantly challenged by those who pay them. If the fee is specific, say, a fitness center fee, a student may truthfully argue that he or she does not use the fitness center. A college may charge a technology fee intended to defray the cost of maintaining the colleges wireless system, and a student may argue that as an online student who lives far away, they have never and will never use the campuses wireless system. Schools have fairly stock responses to these complaints, and rarely waive fees. But they do keep track, either formally or informally, of the complaints they receive, about which fees people complain, and how strongly people feel about specific types of fees.

As a result, a sort of pendulum is created, that swings from fee specificity to fee generality and then back again to feed specificity. Here’s how it works: a college may have just one category of fee – let’s call it “general fees,” and students or their parents when paying the bill call and complain about this fee because they want to know what they are paying for (which is a reasonable question.) When the college gets enough of these complaints, someone suggest a solution: breaking down the general fee into identifiable parts, thereby increasing its specificity. And guess what happens? The complaints about how general and vague the fee is go down. For a semester or two, everyone pats themselves on the back – fewer complaints! But then the complaints about the specific fees begin to rise. Customers ask: why am I paying for a fitness center? Why am I paying an infrastructure fee? Why am I paying an Innovation fee? Why am I paying a sustainability fee? And so on. The number of different fees become simply an invitation for large number of different complaints about those fees. What’s the result? You guessed it: someone proposes collapsing the most-complained-about these into a single, more vaguely-named fee. Sometimes the school is so fed up with the complaints that they grab the bull by the horns and collapse all of their fees together into one fee with a very general name. You see where this is going – at this point the cycle repeats. So every few years the pendulum swings from a few general fees to a large number of specific fees and then back again.

This all may sound like I am complaining or criticizing. I’m not. One can hardly blame the consumer for asking about a vague fee, or for refusing to pay a fee for service they don’t use. Likewise, it would be very strange if schools were not responsive to consumer complaints. In my opinion, the movement of the pendulum is healthy, because every movement of the pendulum is a self-examination by the school of its fee system and an adjustment to meet a need. The pendulum swings from general to specific and then back to general, but when it returns to general the second time, the fee amounts, names, or purposes are rarely identical to the way they were the first time. This means that the institution has changed in response to either internal needs or customer feedback – both good things. So there is a cycle, but it is not a pointless cycle. It is a cycle that produces refinement and adjustment based on internal data and external feedback.