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Minnesota State looks to create a new student fee, despite student opposition

A group representing two-year students worries that adopting an orientation fee could open the door to the creation of other fees as colleges deal with a tuition freeze.

Left to right: Cecilia Damian, Ashlyn Anderson, Isaac Jahraus and Ocean Lamoureaux have raised shared concerns about the new student orientation fee currently under consideration by the Minnesota State board of trustees.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

For Ashlyn Anderson, 21, a health science student at Hennepin Technical College, investing in her education isn’t the issue. It’s the seemingly never-ending onslaught of textbook and student fees that threaten to throw her monthly budgeting out of whack.

“I’m totally fine paying for college, if I know what I’m going to be paying for,” she said, noting it’s difficult to anticipate actual expenses when textbooks end up costing more than advertised, or unexpected student fees pile up.

She currently lives with her parents, while piecing together five part-time jobs — working as a personal care assistant for a young adult with autism and a nanny to three kids, while holding down three campus jobs — so that she can afford to pay for college without taking out any student loans, at least for the time being.

Once she transfers to the University of Minnesota to finish her four-year degree, she knows she’ll need to take out some student loans to help cover her tuition expenses. And since she plans to pursue a career in neuroscience, she’ll likely need to complete grad school as well. But starting out at a state community college was the more practical option for her straight out of high school.

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“Going to a four-year college was never an option for me, affordability-wise,” she said, adding she also needed a buffer period to improve her grades before the U would consider her. That’s because she had struggled with a number of mental health issues in high school that deeply impacted her high school transcript, she said.

For her, every single expense matters. For instance, while she never had to pay an orientation fee at Hennepin Tech, it’s the sort of unanticipated expense that could have been a real barrier for her.

“I probably would have looked at another school, if it was there — for sure,” she said. “It definitely would have discouraged me from going to Hennepin Tech.”

But orientation fees are something that could soon become a fixture at colleges and universities included in the Minnesota State system, formerly known as MnSCU. The Minnesota State system’s board of trustees is looking to add a new student orientation fee to its tuition and fees policy.

This would allow colleges and universities to charge students a fee to “support new student orientation activities and other strategies designed to assist new students in making a successful academic and social transition,” as written in the draft that will soon end up back before the board for discussion on May 16. Barring any revisions, they could vote to adopt the new language at their board meeting in June.

“Many Minnesota State colleges and universities offer student orientation sessions to introduce students to the campus, faculty, staff, and other students, and provide an opportunity to ask questions, meet new people and become acquainted with their new environment,” wrote Doug Anderson, a spokesperson for the board of trustees. “Board policy already permits colleges and universities to charge for student orientations. The purpose of the proposed change in policy is simply to provide an option for colleges and universities to charge for orientation services and events in a more transparent fashion.”

‘When does this stop?’

Formalizing a new student orientation fee is a seemingly small — yet potentially impactful — move that some students are worried may open the door to the creation of more student fees. And these are the types of add-ons that take a disproportionate toll on many of the low-income, nontraditional students that these schools serve.

Furthermore, students have raised concerns that the creation of any new fees would violate the tuition freeze for Minnesota State students that state lawmakers mandated for the upcoming school year.

Cecilia Damian, vice president of LeadMN, the group representing two-year college students in Minnesota, says she was the sole voice of total opposition to the new student orientation fee when the tuition and fee policy review committee first vetted it.

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“I was extremely concerned and disappointed when I heard a member of the committee ask if passing the orientation fee would open the door for fees to fund other new initiatives. The answer throughout the room was yes. This comment, along with comments about finding ways to generate new revenue with the tuition freeze in place, led me to believe that this fee was really about generating more revenue and not about students,” she said.

According to the draft language of the tuition and fees policy, a new student orientation fee could cover things like “orientation and welcome week activities.” It could not be used to cover “course registration activities.” There is no suggested amount, nor any cap on the amount schools could choose to charge for this fee.

In a letter addressed to Minnesota State leadership that she sent in January, Damian wrote, “It’s not unreasonable to imagine a snow removal fee, a weekend course fee, or an academic advising fee being created to help supplement operational budgets.”

“At the end of the day, when does this stop?” she said during a recent interview. “When does the adding of new fees stop? If you start adding one, what’s preventing them from adding another on? That’s frustrating.”

It’s the sort of thing that experts have seen happening in other states. According to Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University who recently published a study on student fees, “fees are going up faster than tuition in most states.” The public may be more attuned to tuition rates, he said. But it’s worth paying attention to the impacts of rising student fees as well because these are the extras that often aren’t covered by state scholarships and grants.

Tuition freezes are usually in about 15 to 20 states in any given year, he added. And this often coincides with rising student fees.

“What often happens is when there’s a tuition freeze, colleges still have at least some authority to increase student fees. This is what they’re looking for in Minnesota as well,” he said. “And in some cases, when states restrict tuition increases, colleges respond by raising fees by the same amount they would have wanted to for tuition.”

Passing the bill along

According to data provided by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, on average, students studying at four-year universities in the Minnesota State system pay roughly double the amount that students studying at two-year community and technical colleges in the same system pay in student fees.

Based on self-reported numbers from the 2017-18 school year that reflect weighted average tuition and mandatory general fees charged to a student taking 15 credits per term, students paid nearly $600, on average, at two-year colleges, compared to those at four-year universities who paid nearly $1,200 in fees. These totals don’t include fees for the purchase of items that a student retains ownership of, refundable fees, or fees that can be waived. 

Under these same parameters, on the high end for two-year colleges, students at Normandale paid $945 in student fees — an amount that accounted for 16 percent of their annual tuition-and-fee total. On the high end for four-year schools, students at Winona State University paid just over $2,000 in fees — an amount that accounted for 21 percent of their annual tuition-and-fee total.

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By way of comparison, students enrolled at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus paid $1,688 in fees. Given much higher tuition costs, fees accounted for a much less noticeable portion of students’ total bill — just 12 percent.  

While things like parking fees and a statewide student association fee — to fund LeadMN — are required at all Minnesota State colleges and universities, there’s still a lot of room for variability among the various campuses. In unpacking the fee rate at Normandale, for instance, two major projects that were largely vetted and approved by former students place this college on the high end of the spectrum.

About eight years ago, the school took out a bond to remodel its student center. Students are charged $7.50 per credit to help pay down that expense. Additionally, students pay $9.50 per credit to help cover the cost of a new parking ramp that the school built in 2013.

“At the time, our student government was very involved in approving borrowing the money, knowing students for 20-plus years to come would have a fee,” said Lisa Wheeler, the college’s vice president of finance and operations.

Once the construction costs for both projects are paid down, a portion of these associated fees will drop off. But they won’t disappear entirely because of “ongoing maintenance costs,” she said.

As for an orientation fee, she says the school formerly had one in place, but “it’s on hiatus until the system policy gets clarified.”