Wednesday, September 05, 2007



The New York Times ran a front-page article yesterday with the shocking – shocking, I say – news that colleges with reduced state funding and regulated tuition levels have made up part of the difference by jacking up the fees they actually control. The article specified one college charging a 'curriculum fee,' which I thought was especially creative. (There's one college near me – pseudonymity prevents my revealing it – that charges a per-credit parking fee, whether you register a car or not. If you take the bus to school, you still pay the parking fee. To my mind, that's tuition.)

It's a maddening piece to read, but not for the reasons the authors obviously intend.

The purpose of the article, if you read it closely, is to pressure colleges for greater transparency of fees. From the way the article is written, you'd think the fees came up at the last minute as surprises, like those last minute closing costs on a house. There may be cases in which that's true, but they strike me as very much the exception. Most public colleges and universities publish their tuition and fee levels.

To my mind, the real irritation felt by the students has little to do with transparency, and much to do with actual cost. They don't want to pay that much, whether you call it tuition, fees, taxes, or anything else. (There's a secondary but very real issue with scholarships that cover 'tuition' but not fees; in those cases, reclassing certain costs as fees will hit certain students pretty hard.)

This strikes me as of a piece with a story I read recently in which some enterprising social scientists discovered a correlation between tight municipal budgets and the rate at which local police ticketed out-of-town and out-of-state drivers. (Essentially, strapped towns ticketed at much higher rates, effectively displacing their revenue sources from taxes on locals to tickets on non-locals.) In both cases, the moral is the same: needs don't go away just because we wish they would.

I used to believe in 'transparency' as an ideal. Then I got a credit card. About once a month, I get some two-point font, sixteen-page foldout detailing the fourteen new ways they'll try to screw me over this month. If I don't cancel the card, the changes take effect. The 'disclosures' are absurdly long and confusing, and, I believe, deliberately so. They're counting on the opportunity cost of the time it would take to wade through everything outweighing the cost of what you think they'd try to pull. The foldouts meet the legal threshold of 'transparency,' but they do so in such a way that unless you make it a major life quest, you'll never figure out what's going on. Too much information can obscure as easily as too little. (This is why I pay mine off in full every month; I don't want to give the bastards the satisfaction.)

(And don't even get me started on the 'full disclosure' documents from my HMO. Anyone who objects to single-payer health care on the grounds that it's 'bureaucratic' is invited to navigate the phone tree at my HMO. Kafka would consider it 'over the top.')

As public institutions, cc's (and other public colleges) are subject to the political winds. When some folks decide they can make political hay by passing Sweeping Reforms, like tuition freezes or taxpayer bills of rights, they characteristically do so without paying any meaningful attention to why tuition increases were needed in the first place. So the laws get passed, but the needs don't go away. Colleges muddle through by splitting the difference – a few more needs are shorted, and a few more creative funding sources are cultivated. It's utterly predictable. Then students complain about shorted needs, parents complain about increased fees, and the legislators cast about in vain for the next Ward Churchill to blame everything on. This ain't rocket science, people.

If you're serious – truly serious – about getting tuition and fees under control, there's no shortage of ways to do it. You could restrict the range of programs offered (thereby shorting an educational need); you could redirect your mission to serve only the economic and academic elites (thereby shorting an educational need); you could pass universal single-payer health care and get those costs down to the level of, I don't know, every other advanced country (thereby solving an actual need); or you could engineer some sustainable, predictable level of public and/or philanthropic funding for the long term (thereby solving several actual needs). Those are just off the top of my head – it's certainly not an exhaustive list. Or you could say 'to hell with it' and jack up tuition, like the private colleges do.

But to call for 'transparency' and assume that you're solving the problem is just naïve. As long as the underlying needs are still there and the public funding still isn't, a ban on fees amounts to nothing more than a call for a new euphemism. And we academics are very, very good at euphemisms.

I think everyone should read this post whether or not they are connected to higher education.

My current school, facing uncertain revenue from the state, has a fee to recoup any state shortfalls in expected funding the the tune of a couple hundred dollars per student. However, they said they would refund it if the state provides adequate funding. In light of your article, I think the fee is is a "twofer" since it addresses the revenue shortfall from the state and clearly lays the blame on the state's doorstep.

Now if only we could do that for K-12 in this state which also sees its promised aid slashed midyear after all expenses have been budgeted.
I went and read the article (thanks for the link Dean Dad) and I am appalled at the approach of the author! This newspaper gets worldwide distribution; the article is soooo misleading. Aaargh!

I've attended three colleges full time and taught at two where I opted to audit classes. The fee structure was always spelled out somewhere. I did need to call the registrar at one place but they had the info readily available when I asked.

This is an important topic but I think the public would have been better served by an article outlining WHY U's and colleges keep increasing fees. From what I gather (again, short experiences at a number of institutions ranging from large to small and both public and private), it is because they keep enacting laws to limit tuition increases. Sometimes these limits are BELOW the rate of inflation. No one would expect a good business plan with that sort of restrition. Why is any one surprised that colleges can't get that system to work either! Oooooh, I am just so worked up right now.

Maybe I should get ready for the classes I need to teach today at about a 1/3 of the pay that I would get in industry...

An aside, I know that state that miranda is from and I am always appalled at the state's budget modifications that are often retroactive so that the schools have no shot at staying in the black.

I think I never want to be in academic administration anywhere.
I liken it to booking a cruise. There is stuff that is not covered by your fare, and that information is plainly available. But you might not know that it is plainly available if you don't think to look...
The whole "transparency" angle of the article is completely mystifying. The way I see it, fees are the most tranparent part of what these students pay. They know about them up-front and they are subdivided into exactly where your money is going (health fee, rec fee, parking fee etc.).
What bothers me are fees that are mandatory, for services I won't/can't use, that aren't tuition. Up here in the Great White, tuition is tax deductible. Fees aren't.

I wanted to take a single course at Atkinson College (part of York University in Toronto), which makes a big deal in its advertising about live-long learning, links to the community, and so on. In the end, my single course would have cost me 50% more than the listed tuition*, with the extra costs not being tax deductible it was twice as expensive as tuition alone would have been.

(I ended up not taking the course. I could have afforded one month's rent, but not the two month's rent it would have cost me after paying fees.)

These fees were listed in the course calendar, at various locations, so in one sense they were "transparent". On the other hand, significant extra expenses for part-time learners, from an institution that claims to serve them well and want more of them, makes for a considerable disconnect between public statements and reality.

* Not being part of a degree program (I was taking the course because I was interested, while working 50-60 hours a week at my day job) I had to pay an application fee every semester. Considered against the tuition for a 4-year degree, the application fee is nothing, but compared to the tuition for a single half-class it was significant (20%). I had to pay for athletic facilities that were only open during the day (when I work), cultural facilities I wasn't allowed to use because they weren't open during the semester I was taking the course, and so on.
I had a similar experience.

I took a semester course, about a 1/4 workload. The price was quoted in the enrolment book. And then there was the ID card fee and a "Health Fee"

I rang and explained that I wouldn't be using the Health Centre on campus as I had comprehensive medical insurance and my own doctor.

I was told it wasn't actually for health as in the gym, or doctors, but more something to do with the campus - more in the nature of "health and safety" than anything.

Presumably for the 'health" of the institution rather than me.
Ah, fees.

I was told that when they wrote California's Master Plan for Education they designed CA's public universities to be free, and made a statement that UCs would never charge tuition.

Fast forward to today and I spend several thousand dollars a quarter in fees but, you guessed it! My tuition cost is zero.

Transparency will never beat out equivocation.
It seems to me that the problem is not "transparency" per se, but what the term means to various stakeholders involved with the transaction. DD advised that tranparency from his credit card company is not three pages of terms in 2 point font. He just wants to know in simple terms what the hell happens if he doens't pay his bill on time! Similarly, I think in the cases where a school is upfront about the existence of fees, how much each one is and what they're for, from an administrative standpoint the school may feel that they are being reasonably transparent. However, from a student's perspective it may seem less so. Students have to budget for and think in terms of their overall costs to attend however you slice those costs and whatever you call the slices (e.g., tuition, room & board, fees, etc).

As DD explained even though there still remains a real gap in costs to deliver the academics that has to be made up somehow, somewhere, I think at some level the "transparency" that students and their parents may be seeking is "Why do you continue to tell me tuition is "x" when anyone with a brain can see it's really x+y! Something's fishy here" Now, even though the instituion may live and breathe awareness of the constraints under which they operate and what they can and can't charge for tuition and how they still have to make up the difference, it is unlikely that students will do so in the same way so it may need to be spelled out. They may not like the explanation any better, but now there is the possibility of some action they can take (i.e. write the legislators an attempt to change their thinking on funding) in the face of that.
The faculty at my place thinks the best way of controlling costs would be to fire some deans.
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