The Hidden Cost Of College: Rising Student Fees

Jeffrey Sellingo:

With tuition bills arriving as the fall semester starts, students and parents might notice a line with a pretty big number next to it: student fees.

During their college search, many prospective students tend to pay attention to tuition. But in the last decade, fees have started to make up a larger share of the overall bill, particularly at public campuses. Since 2000, student fees have actually grown faster than tuition in percentage terms. Fees rose 95 percent at public four-year colleges (and 61 percent at private colleges), according to a study by Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. Because the sticker price is often much lower at a public college than a private institution, the hike in student fees hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Student fees have traditionally been used to fund specific campus programs such as student unions and recreational facilities,” Kelchen wrote in his study, “but the number and types of fees have increased substantially over the past two decades.”

Those include technology fees, library fees, and athletics fees. Nearly half of all subsidies public universities provide to athletics programs come from student fees. Public colleges like using fees when they need to raise overall prices because they typically get to keep the revenue generated from fees, unlike tuition dollars which are sometimes funneled through state coffers. What’s more, students usually get to vote on new fees or fee increases. Many of these measures easily pass because the students who vote mostly have graduated by the time the fees are in place.

As Kelchen noted in his study, fees are a popular way to pay for amenities, such as recreation centers and student unions, needed to keep up with competitors. This arms race on so-called consumption amenities—so named because have no lasting value for students—helps attract relatively low-achieving, high-income applicants who do not receive large financial-aid packages, according to researchers, but raises the cost for everyone else, especially low-income students struggling to pay bills.