Student leaders at UNC System schools are opposing potential fee changes they say could cut funds for student groups and student government while expanding budgets for campus police.
At the end of January, student leaders at UNC-Chapel Hill sent a letter to the Board of Governors and UNC System President Peter Hans to express concern over ongoing discussions of the Student Activity Fee. This mandatory fee, charged at different rates across the system, pays for a variety of essentials for campus life: student unions, recreation, the performing arts, student groups and student government.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, the system’s flagship campus, students paid $400 in non-academic Student Activity Fees for the 2020-21 academic year.
That’s too much, some board of governors members say. They want to eliminate the mandatory fee, and allow students to “opt-in” if they wish to pay it. That could reduce the final bill for students, but also dramatically reduce the amount of money available for student groups and activities many students consider to be the backbone of the campus experience.
“The cost of education is out of control,” said UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis. “It’s just unaffordable for a lot of people.”
The Student Activity Fee is one of a number of fees that are separate from and in addition to tuition at UNC System schools.
Resident undergraduates will pay an average of $6,553 in tuition and fees for the 2021-22 school year, compared with $20,194 for out-of-state undergraduates. That doesn’t include the costs of room, board, books and other campus-related expenses.
In-state tuition at UNC’s three “NC Promise” schools – Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina University — will remain at $1,000 annually, as it has since the affordable tuition program began in 2018. Out-of-state students pay $2,500 per semester at those schools.
Some of the costs — tuition, debt repayment — are complicated to control or eliminate, Kotis said. But the Student Activity Fee is an example of non-essential fees that could be cut down significantly, he said.
“Right now, it’s kind of like a fitness membership where a lot of people aren’t using it,” said Kotis. “The model is based on a lot of people not using these things, which then pay for others to have enhanced benefits.”
Students who never attend plays or music performances still pay a fee that helps fund them and reduces ticket prices for those who do, for instance.
“I’d like to see more of a cafeteria model,” Kotis said. “They say if it’s not a required fee, then scholarships and grants won’t pay for it. Okay, then make it a required fee but make it flexible what they pay so they have more control.”
That idea presents a problem on multiple levels, student leaders say. “Creating an opt-in system would likely have a disproportionate impact on the very students most in need of their services,” UNC-Chapel Hill student leaders wrote in their letter to the board. “That is, low-income and other marginalized student populations who would be most likely to opt out of the [Student Activity Fee]. Making the fee opt-in will simply increase the cost burden for those who rely most heavily on financial aid, thus students of low socioeconomic status will be even more severely impacted.”
Allowing students to opt out of programs for which they’d rather not pay could also deprive racially underrepresented groups of funding for organizations and events that would otherwise struggle to exist, student leaders said. Well-financed fraternities and sororities may be able to fund their activities through contributions from well-off alumni and their own membership fees. Other groups aren’t so fortunate.
“Black and brown students would also be heavily affected by this change, as the SAF funds many of the organizations and spaces in which they have found supportive and affirming communities—often in predominantly white institutions,” the student leaders wrote in their letter. “For the System’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, student activities are a cornerstone of the campus experience and critical to retention.”
College is traditionally a time and place for people to be exposed to a greater diversity people, events and views, student leaders said. That often happens through groups and events funded through these fees.
“The SAF encourages engagement across a broad range of cultures, viewpoints, and political persuasions by allowing to students to develop diverse programming and organizations,” the student leaders wrote. “In an opt-in system, students would be less likely to be exposed to these diverse viewpoints and more likely to self-select only into those programs that affirm their existing belief systems.”
Allowing students to pay for only the groups, activities and experiences with which they’re already familiar or already agree would be antithetical to the spirit and mission of the university said Lamar Richards, recently elected student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“If we move to opt-in, I would imagine most students would opt out,” Richards told Policy Watch in an interview this week. “Then students who are wealthy enough to fund their own organizations, their own activities, they’ll continue to have them. You’ll then have a much less diverse and much less involved student population, students who are much less involved in under-funded student organizations, who have less access to underfunded student support that is funded by these fees.”
The fees also pay for hundreds of vital part-time jobs, assistantships and work-study positions, Richards said. Students who rely on financial aid need those jobs both for the experience and the pay.
“For students who don’t need that work or who can afford to work for free, to take unpaid internships, who can afford not to work while they’re in school, they’re fine to opt out,” Richards said. “But that’s not everyone. But everyone will be affected.”
Kotis said he understands not everyone will agree with his position, which he said obviously comes from his small government, free market conservative viewpoint. Not even everyone on the board of governors agrees, he said, and he’s not sure there’s enough support to make the change to these fees. But student leaders arguing against it, he said, have a conflict of interest when the fees pay for the operation of student government.
“Like any good government, they don’t want to give up the purse strings,” Kotis said.
Ultimately, Kotis said the suggested change is about protecting a core mission of the university more essential than diversifying student activities: the charge in the state constitution that “higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.”
Charging everyone more for police?
If that’s the motivation behind targeting student fees, student leaders said, it is difficult to square with another of the board’s recent pushes — to increase the Campus Security Fee.
Board members have argued an increase might be necessary to align pay for campus police and emergency telecommunication staff with market rates.
“These are entirely legitimate objectives, and certainly merit further discussion,” student leaders said in their January letter. “However, those discussions should occur within the communities that those individuals are hired to protect. In light of the racial justice movements of the past year, as well as growing concerns among students, faculty, and staff about the role of police on our campuses, it is absolutely essential to involve these constituencies in decisions that implicate a significantly larger financial investment in law enforcement agencies.”
At UNC-Chapel Hill, students have noted for years that student protesters — especially during the demonstrations against the Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam” — have been treated more harshly than neo-Confederate protesters who have come to campus armed and sporting white supremacist symbols.
As Policy Watch reported in 2017, UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus police assigned an officer to infiltrate the movement to remove the Confederate monument.
The same force failed to arrest members of the Heirs to the Confederacy group who carried guns onto campus only to see members of the group return to campus and steal a $600 UNC System flag and deface the the Unsung Founders Memorial, which honors the slaves who built the university.
A Campus Safety Commission was subsequently formed to examine the loss of trust between students and the campus and its police force.
In that environment, and in the midst of a nationwide discussion of policing methods and funding, student leaders said a decision from the board of governors on the Campus Security Fee feels tone-deaf at best.
“Indeed, many campus constituents have argued that institutions need to reduce their overall police presence, which would allow them to reallocate existing resources and raise pay without an increase in revenue,” the student leaders wrote in their January letter. “
Furthermore, it remains an open question whether a larger law enforcement makes students, faculty, or staff feel safer,” the student leaders wrote. “Accordingly, a top-down decision to charge students for a substantial increase in spending on law enforcement, without input from these constituencies, will only sow further distrust and frustration in our campus communities. In light of the System’s espoused commitment to racial equity, this would surely be a step in the wrong direction.”
“I can’t for the life of me figure out how the same body that says they’re concerned about the cost of student fees for things that students and their elected leaders consistently say that they want and use are talking about increasing the Campus Security Fee,” Richards said. “Is it about protecting the financial cost to students or is it about putting the money where they want it to go?”