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Higher Education's Dirty Little Secret
Hidden college fees have become a "stealth tuition"

By Terry L. Meyers


 
When parents and politicians bewail high and increasing college costs, they point to rising tuition as the culprit. But if you turn a spotlight on one of the dark corners of academe, you'll discover something few colleges and universities 'fess up to. It's not just tuition that is driving up the price of an education. It is also fees—and more villainously, because they are so often hidden.

At Wisconsin's public universities, undergraduate fees to support activities, programs and buildings not funded by the state or by tuition have doubled in only ten years, to an average of $711 annually. At the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, fees have reached $1,148 a year. Until recently no one really noticed, but now state legislators, regents of the state university system, newspapers and students are on the case. One regent, Thomas Loftus, has labeled such fees "sort of a stealth tuition increase that is pricing too many people out of the UW system."

One particular fee seems not to get much attention: the money students pay for intercollegiate sports, especially football and basketball. Even at Division I schools with nationally ranked teams and television deals, athletic fees help support intercollegiate athletics. (Recreational and intramural sports usually have their own fees.)

At a large school with television income and rich benefactors, the intercollegiate athletic fee might be relatively modest. But at less fortunate schools, those fees can be high. And they're high in part because they are tucked away (sometimes carefully so) and grow in secret, with no one paying attention except those with an interest in keeping them out of sight. There is no transparency and hence no constituency to act as a brake.

Most Americans assume that a bill or an invoice from a respectable entity like a university details all significant costs. Look at the bills you get from your dentist or hospital (well, maybe better not to look at that hospital bill!), or from your car mechanic or waiter. The restaurant check tells what you paid for each item you ordered. That martini, wine, onion soup, baked trout, chef's salad and pecan pie—each is listed and priced individually.

But in most cases parents can learn little from the invoices received from the university their child attends-and little more from the school's catalog and website. Rarely do these go beyond a bare-bones listing, "Tuition and Fees." It takes time and effort to dig deeper for a breakdown of what stands behind that entry. And sometimes not even a computer whiz can find where the money actually goes; the information is not available. If restaurants took this obscurantist route, your check would read simply, "Dinner: $87.57."

But consumers of educational services—students and parents—may not know the academic territory and may assume that "Tuition and Fees" represents what they are paying for courses and professors, teaching assistants and classrooms. "Tuition," they think, is the one big-ticket item, with "fees" being the nickel and dime stuff—nothing too big or major. Maybe $50 for the bus system, $75 for the recreational sports building and program, perhaps $75 for a lab fee, and $100 in support of the computer or telecommunications system.

All too often, this trust is misplaced. Fees can be abused through silence or by institutional duplicity that borders on mendacity. Even when the information is made available, it's likely to be in places that most families wouldn't know to look. In Virginia, the state I know best, fees are set forth in an annual report published on a website by the State Council of Higher Education. It is not a source familiar to many Virginia families.

Places a parent or student might check are not forthcoming. On the website of Norfolk State University, a historically black institution whose students may not always be as affluent as those at some colleges, it at first seems easy to find the schedule of tuition and fees. Tuition ($2,370 a year, in-state) is broken out per credit hour, and the costs of a semester, including 15 credits, a double room, and a meal plan, are summarized for both in-state and out-of-state students. There is also a handy chart of "other charges," 27 fees ranging from an accident insurance fee to a university withdrawal fee. Most are modest and clear: a late registration fee of $75, for example, and a bowling fee of $20. But there is no listing for the University's fee for intercollegiate athletics, a whopping $1,100 per student per year.

Or take Old Dominion University, in Norfolk. At its website, ODU shows what it calls "tuition rates" plus "selected mandatory fees"-only three of which it mentions, totaling a mere $92 a year: a "general service fee" of $9 to cover a copy of the catalog, matriculation, graduation and the like; a "student health fee" of $53; and a "transportation fee" of $30. Seems straightforward enough. But hold on-no figure is given for "tuition" as it is generally understood, for the fine print reveals that ODU defines "tuition" in a way George Orwell would be delighted to uncover. "Tuition," ODU says, is a "University term" that "refers to a comprehensive fee which includes a student activity fee of $63.53 per credit hour for Norfolk campus courses..." If you download the tuition and fees pdf that the site offers, you find a note that in addition to those "selected mandatory fees" some lab or music courses have fees "beyond tuition costs." There is no mention of an intercollegiate athletic fee.

Where is it? Look back at the peculiar definition of tuition as including an "activities fee" of $63.53 per credit hour—that's where Old Dominion University hides its intercollegiate athletic fee of $666. (In-state tuition runs $3,542 per year.)

A similar example of chutzpah is to be found at Christopher Newport University. I once asked the head PR person at Christopher Newport what the athletic fee would be. He told me he was not authorized to release that information and I would have to approach the president's chief of staff. Each time "tuition" is listed at CNU's site an asterisk notes "*Includes Tuition, Comprehensive Fee, Technology Fee and Capital Fee." Again a trusting parent might conclude that the fees are nickel and dime stuff—and never guess that CNU actually has an athletic fee of $859 tucked away in its "tuition" of $5,826 annually.

My own school, the College of William and Mary, also charges a lot of money for intercollegiate athletics: $1,008 per student per year. (Annual in-state tuition is $4,815.) In the past, William and Mary too hid its athletic fee, but lately, encouraged by resolutions from the Student Senate and the Faculty Assembly, it has struggled toward honesty. It now lists all its fees online (though by semester, which misleads those who expect college costs to be expressed in yearly terms). And William and Mary promises soon to itemize all costs in its catalog as well and to tell parents and students, on the bills it sends out, where to look for the breakdown.

I believe all institutions should emulate these steps. Even better, they should print all fees directly on each invoice. But, Sam Jones, William and Mary's vice president for finance, has determined that at this college such a step is physically impossible (we're talking about 36 fees). In a fetching outburst of frankness, Jones recently claimed to a student reporter that "people simply want to know what they need to pay and don't want a whole list of fees." He added, "bottom line," that "the parents are paying the bill and students simply aren't concerned."

Secretiveness is the industry norm. Although all kinds of statistics are gathered about higher education by all kinds of departments of education, think tanks, foundations and institutes, no one compiles a national database of athletic fees. With Google and a few keystrokes, you can find out more than anyone would reasonably like to know about virtually anything in higher education that can be measured. But you won't find a source that breaks out fees across the country.

(A reference librarian who interested herself in the question told me a few years ago that when she tried to compile some information on athletic fees, she found such chaos, such differing terms, interpretations and applications, that any comparisons or analysis seemed futile. If anyone out there is looking for a big research project whose payoff might be a serious reexamination of funds and their allocation in America's colleges and universities, this compilation of data should be tempting.)

It's not difficult to guess why it's so hard to get accurate information about athletic fees. As has sometimes been said, sports is the national religion of America. And those folks in the grandstand—many of them not students—don't care who helps pay for their amusement. If college athletic programs can be supported by fees on students, and if no one cries out (i.e., if no one notices), then the costs are bearable (i.e., they are borne by someone else). Bread and circuses have their use.

But public scrutiny of higher education's dirty little secret is increasing. The Richmond Times-Dispatch and USA Today have looked into athletic fees, and the Newport News Daily Press in Virginia recently editorialized against "outrageous" athletic fees, especially "when colleges are having trouble maintaining their academic core."

Bringing athletic fees into the light of day might complicate the funding of big-time football and basketball teams, but honesty—transparency—remains the best policy. Secrecy invites and rewards mendacity. Follow the money, prosecutors say. Parents, students and taxpayers have a right to know how funds are allocated at public institutions. They, too, need to follow the money and thus help lead higher education along the path of honesty.


Terry L. Meyers is a professor of English at the College of William and Mary.

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National CrossTalk Winter 2006

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