Students

Optional Student Fees? In Wisconsin, Students Are Divided on the Idea

February 27, 2017

Courtesy of Elissa Koppel
A sustainable-agriculture club at the U. of Wisconsin at Madison grows fresh vegetables and distributes them free to students. It’s among the student groups that could be harmed by a proposal to do away with mandatory fees that support such organizations, its members say.

A line of 70 to 80 students stretches out near the F.H. King Farm every summer in Madison, Wis., when a University of Wisconsin at Madison student organization gives away its produce.

The club, F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture, provides students with, among other things, fresh produce from the student-maintained farm, said Elissa Koppel, a sophomore and programming director for the organization. For some students it’s their only source of fresh vegetables.

But there’s a real chance her group won’t survive, Ms. Koppel said. That’s because Gov. Scott Walker’s most recent budget proposal would give students in the University of Wisconsin system the option not to pay certain student fees.

This month Mr. Walker, a Republican, proposed providing $140 million in additional funding for the university system, including $35 million to fund a 5-percent tuition cut for in-state undergraduates in the 2018-19 academic year. The plan also would allow students to opt out of paying "allocable student fees," or fees that largely fund student services, which this academic year totaled $88.98 for each full-time undergraduate on the Madison campus. The university now requires students to pay both allocable and nonallocable student fees, totaling $607.56 per semester for full-time undergraduates. Nonallocable fees cover such services and activities as health care, student-union programming, and recreational sports.

State lawmakers are quick to talk about reducing the price of a college education for students and families. The fact that Mr. Walker, a Republican who is running for re-election in 2018, is targeting fees suggests he recognizes that tuition isn’t the only culprit in fueling student debt; fees also contribute. Those fees are a familiar issue for the campus: In 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the University of Wisconsin at Madison was not violating students’ First Amendment rights by using their mandatory fees to fund organizations that they opposed.

Some of the fees that students would be able to opt out of go to the General Student Services Fund, which helps certain eligible student organizations to maintain budgets greater than $20,000. Through fees, students also pay for student government, other student groups, and a bus pass for noncampus routes on the Madison Metro Transit system, among other things.

At Madison, some students are excited at the prospect of saving their $89, while others, particularly leaders of student organizations, are concerned about how their clubs will be funded, even whether the groups will survive.

Allowing students to opt out of paying student fees could seem like a politically motivated move to chip away at the budgets of particular organizations, but most student groups are supported with neutrally distributed grants through the student government, known as the Associated Students of Madison, said Jason Klein, a sophomore majoring in journalism, French, and history, and the press chair for the student government.

Registered student organizations can apply for grants for operations, events, and travel, and funding is determined by the Student Council and a student panel called the Student Services Finance Committee, he said. Any organizations "in good standing" can apply for the grants, which are awarded through another student panel, the Grant Allocation Committee.

Certain organizations that provide student services are eligible to draw on a different pool of money, the General Student Services Fund, which also comes from allocable fees. The student government’s bylaws state that funds cannot be awarded based on an organization’s views. The Student Services Finance Committee evaluates factors like a group’s level of service to the student body, fiscal responsibility, and accessibility, not its mission, when distributing funds to ensure "viewpoint neutrality," according to the committee’s comprehensive guide.

If enough students opted out of allocable fees, then there might not be funding for organizations that don’t represent the majority opinion on the campus, Mr. Klein said. For example, Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group, may not receive funding if fee distribution with limited funds changes to prioritize groups that serve a larger part of the student body.

"You have to wonder, without this concept of viewpoint neutrality that is in place under our current system or without all the segregated fees that we can afford to give them right now, how they would raise that sort of money," Mr. Klein said.

Economies of Scale

Nicholas Hillman, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the flagship, examined the proposed changes in one of his graduate classes. He said that the class found that having the university use student fees for bulk purchases, as is the case now, is an effective policy for the university.

"It’s actually a really smart move, at least financially, for student fees to be required because it helps colleges run leaner and be more efficient," Mr. Hillman said.

For instance, of the $89 allocable fee, about $55 is used for the bus pass, which allows students to ride the Madison city buses free. The bus pass is a perfect example of the economy of scale, Mr. Hillman said. And if a fee is spread across more students, the bus pass becomes still cheaper for the university, and those savings are ultimately passed on to student riders.

Aside from getting a good deal on bus passes, having students opt out of student fees may not be the best idea if the university wanted to promote "high-impact practices," or activities like volunteering and student involvement outside the classroom, Mr. Hillman said. "If our student organizations suddenly dry up in terms of membership because fewer students participate or they are not financially viable to operate, well, then that’s going to have implications on whether or not these students get those high-impact practices," Mr. Hillman said.

In a letter to the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance, Lori M. Berquam, vice provost for student life and dean of students, wrote that the student-fee change would "jeopardize funding" for student services like transportation, health care, sexual-assault prevention, veterans’ support, and student-leadership training.

From March through June the committee will hold hearings and executive sessions on the budget. and in June a budget bill will be debated by the state's Assembly and Senate.

"All of the services that allocable fees support are valuable to our students and help them to be successful," Ms. Berquam wrote in the letter.

F.H. King is one group that would suffer from Mr. Walker’s plan, Ms. Koppel said.

Still, she said she sympathizes with students who may choose to opt out of the fee. She knows that, for some students, saving $89 could make the difference between buying groceries for the week or going hungry.

T.J. Ruschell, a master’s-degree student in athletic administration, is one student who may opt out of paying the fees if the plan becomes a reality, he said. As an undergraduate on the Madison campus, he never used his bus pass. Mr. Ruschell is a wrestler, and during his time as an undergraduate, he said, he focused on his sport and so wasn’t involved in clubs or organizations that benefited from student fees.

Now as a graduate student, he uses even less of the services financed by the fees.

"As a student I see it as I’m saving $89 because I don’t use all that stuff anyway," Mr. Ruschell said.

Though Mr. Walker’s plan isn’t official policy yet, Ms. Koppel said she wanted to fight the proposal.

"It’s caused our organization to really take a look at ourselves and decide whether we’re going to stay this kind of like docile, passive organization just committed to sustainable agriculture, or whether we’re really going to mobilize and start talking about these broader issues," Ms. Koppel said. "We’re kind of being put on the defense."

It’s organizations like F.H. King and others that help students feel less lonely and more taken care of when they come to college, she said.

"As a student, especially freshmen, who are all of a sudden independent and need to figure out how to take care of themselves in a way they never have, having access to tutoring, and to free condoms, and counseling or at least peer guidance counselors if they need it," Ms. Koppel said, "that’s so crucial."

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.

Correction (3/2/2017, 3:40 p.m.): This article originally said incorrectly that University of Wisconsin students pay $607.56 per year in fees. That amount is per semester, not per year. The text has been corrected.