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Opinion: The $22 million credit on faith

Robert Carpenter: ‘Student success fee’ sets disturbing precedent

Published: Monday, May 7, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 23:07

During an on-campus public hearing last week attended by approximately four students and a room full of people who don’t pay student fees, University President R. Bowen Loftin requested, and the board of regents granted, permission to fund what is known as the “student success fee.” At first glance, students should wonder which existing fees aren’t devoted to “student success.”

Loftin explained his plan for what amounts to a fee redistribution, taking as much as 10 percent from student fees received by University departments and redirecting this money to serve administrative priorities.

He said the fee is designed to increase managerial flexibility and achieve transparency. The administration’s hands are tied when it comes to moving money to meet emerging challenges, Loftin said, so he requested the authority to requisition fees from undisclosed departments to support critical needs.

OK, I see the managerial flexibility, but where is the transparency?

Among the objectives Loftin outlined were a transfer student assimilation program, the quality enhancement plan Aggies Commit, high-impact learning experiences and outreach initiatives to Texas primary and secondary schools.

Under the authority of the student success fee, the administration could, for example, use library fees to pay for study abroad programs, or computer access fees to send professors to speak with high school students. Departments will have to submit proposals to earn, or re-earn, a piece of the student success fee.

True transparency would involve telling the student body the explicit purpose of the funds and the percentage of redistributed funds that will be devoted to each objective, instead of cloaking the student success fee in vague generalities and promises.

As is, students have no way of knowing if $0.50 or $50 of their student success fee will be invested in any one of the administration’s objectives. And we’re not talking nickels and dimes. A University spokesperson estimated the fee will involve $14 million in the first year and $22 million by year two.

Complementing this concern, objectives outlined by the administration such as “[maximizing the] University’s economic impact on the state” have to make students wonder if there exist any limitations to the fee’s usage. This particular goal doubtlessly serves Texas residents, but it’s less clear how it falls under the “student success” umbrella. In the absence of statutes that limit the scope of the fee’s usage, the “administrative freedom fee” is probably a more genuine title — or we could just call it what it is, “tuition.”

In February, the Tuition and Fee Advisory Committee, which includes student members, recommended a $176 increase in tuition for full-time students. The political environment surrounding tuition and fees has been caustic of late, evidenced by the UT board of regents’ vote to publicly deny UT President William Powers’ request for a 5.27 percent tuition increase over the next two years. So Loftin may have been reacting — in a severely limited time frame — to what he saw as writing on the wall for a tuition increase request. Instead, he requested a $43.78 increase in fees per semester and created this student success fee.

It appears that he sought the flexibility to use otherwise-restrictive student fees for tasks traditionally funded by tuition — without the stigma of a “tuition increase.”

While recognizing the uncertainties that face public universities today and the need to be innovative, bear in mind that there is no sunset clause on this fee. With this act, the administration and regents appear to have blurred the lines between “fee” and “tuition” permanently. The act sets a dangerous precedent, claiming autonomy over millions of dollars in student fees for every A&M president between now and eternity.

The result unfortunately appears to be a permanent correction for what could very well be a temporary problem.

Even if we trust Loftin to do what is best for A&M amid dire financial circumstances, it is reckless to place the same amount of trust in unnamed future administrators. And if fears that this is an undercover tuition increase are true, the University and System leadership are playing word games with millions of dollars collected from students.

This is not to say that all fees are bad or even that the administration was ill intentioned. Obviously, there’s a reason students pay fees and Loftin was likely seeking to keep student fees low by increasing internal accountability and competition for students’ money. In fact, there is strong evidence for this, namely the application process that will require departments to be proactive about making student fees go farther.

This commitment to affordable education deserves to be applauded, but the manner in which it was achieved deserves to be critiqued, particularly because the administration did not seek student input prior to presenting plans to the board of regents.

The administration has promised to put together a work force, including students, to review applications for the student success fee next fall. This is a step in the right direction, but administrators have an ethical obligation to clarify the reason for initiating the student success fee, and why students were not consulted in any fashion before its announcement.

After all, it’s both our money and our success we’re talking about.

 

Robert Carpenter is a senior applied mathematics major and editor in chief of The Battalion

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