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Administration Approves New Student Initiated Fee Proposal

Penn State students will pay one fee instead of three on top of tuition starting next year after a proposal by the three student governments was approved by the Penn State’s administration and President Eric Barron.

The proposal — billed the Student Initiated Fee — has been in the works for about a year. Currently, Penn State students pay three mandatory fees on top of tuition: Student Activity Fee, Facilities Fee, and Technology Fee. These fees add up to $992 each year and seem to increase slightly every year.

“The major problem with the current system is there are so many disparities between the different fees,” UPUA Vice President Terry Ford said.

It’s true. The Student Activity Fee is allocated each year by the Student Activity Fee Board, made up of voting students from the three student governments and a UPAC representative, most of which goes back to UPAC to fund student organizations. The Facilities Fee, co-chaired by the presidents of UPUA and GPSA (the graduate student government) is distributed each year for on-campus facilities projects (most recently, the IM Building expansion) as determined by the student governments and outside proposals. The Technology Fee is, well, a mystery, even for the student government leaders. It was instituted in the mid-1990s when technology was becoming more prevalent in the classroom and is allocated with virtually no student involvement — a blatant violation of the spirit of student fees.

Confused yet? That’s what the student government organizations hope to solve by combining the fees into one larger pot, called the Student Initiated Fee, and allocating it every year as they see fit.

“Student fees are allocated using inconsistent processes, marked with varying levels of transparency and bureaucracy,” GPSA President Kevin Horne (also an Onward State editor) said. “The average student isn’t getting their money’s worth. They see the charges on the bursar bill and have no idea what’s going on. With Penn State’s well-noted tuition problems, this is obviously cause for concern.”

student activities fees
An approximate breakdown of the current fee distribution.

According to the student government leaders, a centralized fee system would enable more transparency and flexibility. There will be more freedom to move the money around accordingly between the Student Initiated Fee’s four subcategories: Student Activities, Facilities, Recreation, and Services. For instance, if the student government leaders wanted to move some money from the Facilities subcategory to the services subcategory to hire an additional CAPS counselor (a “mental health fee” of sorts), they could do so without worrying about a “fence” around the three distinct fees, which exists right now. In other words, if the Facilities Fee only uses $6 million of its $8 million this year, it can’t move that $2 million to other parts of the budget that might have a need in the current system. With the new Student Initiated Fee, there will be more flexibility for prioritization.

Future student fee breakdown
Proposed Student Initiated Fee breakdown

The ninth UPUA assembly passed a policy last January under President Anand Ganjam to establish a commission on student fees. The purpose of the commission was to research and analyze student fees at Penn State with a simple, three-part mission: to optimize the process of setting and allocating student fees throughout the university, expand student engagement throughout fee setting and allocating processes, and develop a system for which students can propose and eliminate student fees.

The commission presented its ideas to President Eric Barron last April, who gave his preliminary endorsement. It met again in the fall when Horne and UPUA President Emily McDonald presented the commission’s proposal at a President’s Council meeting. There, the student government leaders got a thumbs up from the entire council and were told to iron out the details.

“Normally, an initiative of this size will take several years,” Ford said. “But Dr. Barron is very enthusiastic about this project and very committed to the idea of student engagement especially when it comes to the cost of higher education.”

At the first UPUA meeting this semester, Ford said he is working on setting up a number of meetings with the university budget and accounting departments with the ultimate goal of finding “where exactly the dividing line should be between fees and tuition.”

The goal is to have a functioning and centralized student fee board up and running by March of this year so the new fee structure can be implemented for the Fall 2016 semester. The student government leaders are currently figuring out details such as membership of the board (likely to be a combination of members of the three student governments and some at-large members), budget deadlines, and the establishment of sub-committees.

“With the new system everything is under student control and students can have a direct say in how things are done,” Ford said.

You may have noticed the Technology Fee is not included in the Student Initiated Fee proposal. Because technology is now a central part of the classroom experience, it no longer fits the qualities of a student fee, separate from academic essentials. President Barron has agreed to separate out that fee and pay it down over time with a dollar for dollar transfer into tuition so the cost of degree does not increase.

“We are being very careful, and President Barron agrees, to make sure this new concept doesn’t result in students paying more fees,” Horne said. “I wouldn’t support this proposal if I didn’t think it would actually result students paying less for more meaningful projects in the long run. We will have the ability to raise the fee, but also to lower it.”

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