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about 7 months ago
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The Student Activity Fee and How You’re Being Swindled

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Your student activity fee is very likely going to increase by $6 at Friday’s Student Activity Fee Board meeting. It’s an all too familiar tune and one I hope that our student leaders fight with vigor. But to really understand what this means, it’s important to have some historical background on the fee and how administrators have used it as a hidden tuition hike over the years.

The first quasi-student activity fee fee dates back to the 1950s and the Milton Eisenhower presidency. Student were charged $7.50 a semester to help pay for the newly constructed HUB. That fee was eventually rolled into tuition and forgotten about.

The next fee came soon after — this time it was actually called the Student Activity Fee — which was used to pay for Daily Collegian printing and operational costs for other student groups. Keep in mind, this was an era when students didn’t need to pay for event space in the HUB that they paid to build, so costs were much lower. In 1960, this fee was set at $4.90. Like its predecessor, this fee was also absorbed by tuition.

Flash forward to 1995. The modern student activity fee we all pay now was approved by the Board of Trustees and endorsed by President Spanier in 1995, and the first $25 fee was imposed in fall 1996. It was never intended to go above the rate of inflation — only to serve as a ample pot for organizations to use for modest programming events and initiatives. Today, thanks to your opaque administrator-controlled Student Activity Fee Board, the fee stands at $87 per semester — an increase of more than double the rate of inflation.

On Friday, at UPAC Chair Jesse Scott’s suggestion, that fee will likely increase to $93, which will add approximately $500,000 per year to the allocation pot (the proposal includes the stipulation that $1 goes to Student Legal Services). The decision will be made by a 13-member board designed to shut out the voices of the students at University Park. Consider the Board makeup: Five administrators (three from Commonwealth Campuses), four CCSG representatives, the UPAC chair, two UPUA representatives, and a GSA representative. Yes — a 13-member board made up of only four students with interests at University Park will decide whether or not to collectively charge the student body an additional $500,000 next year. Our UPUA representatives can kick and scream and fight for us as hard as they can, and will still probably be muffled by the nine administrators and Commonwealth interests.

Of course, the rubber stamp fee board is only half the problem. The other, of course, is UPAC, which receives roughly 2/3 of the Student Activity Fee to allocate to various student groups. UPAC is ultimately the originator of this new fee request. But it’s not Scott’s fault or even UPAC’s fault, necessarily. They’re only playing by the rules laid out in the Student Activity Fee Handbook.

I can still vividly remember my first UPAC meeting a year and a half ago. Yes, I should mention, I was one of the ten representatives dutifully elected by the student body to serve on the 35-member board (I got something like 84 votes, which I believe was a record at the time). The person sitting next to me had received exactly 14 votes. He was the third highest vote getter that year. Yes, we, with the support of less than one percent of the student body, got to decide how UPAC’s $4 million was spent. Nevertheless, there we were, four hours every Tuesday night, reviewing budgets and listening to club officers pitch us for money.

My first allocation was approximately $4,000 for a student organization to go on a retreat. The group asked for an additional $50 at the end to buy individual spiral notebooks so they could organize designated “reflection times” to “create a keepsake” to remember the weekend by. Nobody flinched. I was the only person in the room who voted not to fund them. Were those notebooks actually used for “reflection” or just for schoolwork? There’s no way of ever knowing.

This isn’t going to be a diatribe against UPAC. They’re only playing by the rules they’re given, and even if an aspect of an event sounds ridiculous (reflection notebooks, it still kills me sometimes), they can’t discriminate and must remain viewpoint neutral as a committee.

The problem is not necessarily the committee, but the lack of oversight mechanisms when dishing out the money. My committee voted to fund flights and hotels for students to attend weeklong conferences in Las Vegas. We sent a few students to Europe over spring break for a showcase. The only barriers to the free money are a few reasonable caps ($200 for a hotel room per night, four students per room, $0.25 per mile, $7,500 per club annually, etc) and a 90 percent restriction, meaning, if UPAC approves a budget, students need to find a way to fork up 10 percent of the overall cost.

Hell, there’s no way to even know if students actually attend to the hundreds conferences UPAC pays for every year or if they even learned anything.

Sure, the committee will ask every requestor who comes in the standard questions: “What is the purpose of the event?”; “What will you bring back to Penn State?”; “What do you hope to learn?” Of course, it’s all a two-way game of bullshit, and one where the most active students win and students who either do nothing or are involved exclusively with THON or Greek life lose (those organizations cannot request UPAC funding for one reason or another).

I didn’t forget that the student activity fee helps subsidize some amazing things. SPA couldn’t bring in so many great free acts without its $1 million a year from UPAC, nor could the BJC offer so many big discounts. Homecoming gets a big chunk to run its awesome programs, too.

But the point is, there will always be a huge demand for what is essentially free money with little oversight. As more student organizations become aware of UPAC and the loopholes in the Student Activity Fee, the demand will only increase at an unsustainable rate. UPAC Chair Scott has acknowledged the reason for his big hike is because the number of budget requests has increased steadily for the last few years. In fact, UPAC has allocated more money than it’s taken in over the last four years, allowed only because of a rollover surplus from a previous year.

When does it end? Of course, the demand is going to be high to use other people’s money to fly to conferences or hold events, with virtually no oversight or mechanism to ensure fairness. The Student Activity Fee could be $200 a semester — and at this rate, it will be one day — and our 900+ student organizations could find plenty of stuff to spend it all on and conferences in appealing cities to attend on our collective dime. As more student organizations colonize, and more students become aware of UPAC and the ease of tapping the fund, that demand is only going to increase. The fee is spiraling out of control, and will soon become triple the rate of inflation from when it began 18 years ago. The cycle will never end unless we end it.

So, let’s end it.

UPUA Chair Anthony Panichelli and President Katelyn Mullen have promised to take an informal vote at tonight’s General Assembly meeting to decide their votes at Friday’s meeting. Unfortunately, it’s probably moot. The system is rigged; University Park undergratuate elected representatives only make 2/13 of the decision.

The Student Activity Fee Board will meet at 3:30 p.m. in 111 HUB on Friday. The meeting is open to the public, and I encourage anyone who cares about the integrity of the Student Activity Fee to attend. If nothing else, they’ll be shocked to have an audience.

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