opinion

OPINION: Freeze the fees: how IU’s student fees nickel and dime us to oblivion



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People walk and sit Oct. 10 around the Sample Gates. Sam House

Check your bursar bill — notice anything different? Perhaps you’ll discover the normal melody of mandatory fees has been combined into one lump sum. Or maybe you’ll see an unexpected charge you weren’t aware of. Sometimes you’ll find a fee with no other explanation than “supporting ongoing costs for students.”

IU has an arsenal of fees that barrage students with extra expenses, allowing IU to offset costs without raising tuition. Many fees can be created and increased without the authorization of the Board of Trustees or any public input. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has blurred the line on IU’s financial transparency, making it even more difficult to understand the purpose of our fee payments.

It’s time IU reconciles with its fee program to eliminate nonsensical fees, guarantee student input on fee changes and expand public accountability on university finances.

Administrative fees:

Administrative fees are a key example of how the university can nickel and dime students. The laundry list of administrative fees disparately affects certain student populations while making required activities needlessly costly for students.

Admissions and enrollment

A hypothetical first year student at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs would be riddled with administrative fees in their journey to becoming a student. The student would start with a $46.25 admission application fee which would lead to a non-refundable $100 enrollment deposit if accepted into IU. The student would then pay their $169 First Year Orientation fee along with the $150 O’Neill orientation fee. If the amateur student needs to change up their classes, they’d pay another $8.70 for every instance they change their schedule. 

Before the student has even seen a classroom, they’ve already paid $473.95 to IU.

International students

IU doubles down on their financial exploitation through their treatment of international students. Almost every administrative fee mentioned above would be increased if your permanent residence is outside the United States.

On top of that, the international student fee has nearly quadrupled in recent years. International students were frustrated in the fall of 2017 when the fee was doubled from $91.80 to $200 without warning.

“A lot of people have these stereotypes of international students being people with fairly large amounts of money, and their family pays for everything,” said Graduate and Professional Student Government President Adam Reneker in a 2018 IDS interview. “That's not necessarily the case, especially when you're dealing with graduate students.”

The IU administration decided to double the international student fee again in 2020, ignoring prior protests. The international student fee now stands at $357.

The exorbitant fees for international students gives context to a recent evaluation of IU’s financial stability, which used IU’s population of international students as an indicator of fiscal stability during the COVID-19 pandemic in a mask-off approach to university finances.

Fees on tuition payments

Several other administrative fees are nonsensical and serve as a backwards punishment for vulnerable students. Notably, the payment plan fee charges $70 for students who are unable to afford the bulk tuition rates and opt for scheduled payments throughout the semester. 

In a similar vein, late bursar payments incur a 1.5% monthly fee on the amount owed. If a student is struggling to gather money for their in-state tuition, they’d get hit with a $168.30 late fee, making it even harder to pay and continue their education.

Payment fees are just another harmful contributor to lower college completion rates among Indiana’s students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Course related fees:

Many courses required for degree completion have additional course-related fees. Theoretically, the fees are listed to offset special costs associated with a specific course. For example, the electronic music fee intends to cover “advanced equipment and software necessary for the course.” Similar fees also cover field trips and lab supplies.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the utter absence of financial transparency among IU’s course fees. One example is the nursing clinic fee. Students in IU’s rigorous nursing program are required to complete a period of clinical education to receive their certification. Nursing students receive hands-on instruction with real patients under a registered nurse, an immensely valuable aspect of their medical education. 

When campus shut down last spring, the clinical programs were moved online and nursing students canceled their hands-on education for that semester. Nevertheless, nursing students paid the full $526.42 course fee.

“Nursing students paid over $1,000 in clinical fees despite the clinical being virtual, for example, free YouTube videos and online games/tutorials,” said IU nursing student Celeste Carver. 

“We’re back in clinical for our final semester before we graduate in December, but the sentiment among a lot of my classmates definitely centers around feeling ill-prepared as we begin to transition into our careers,” said Carver.

Confused about the high price tag for an online clinical education, hundreds of nursing students, parents, alumni and staff signed a petition seeking a partial fee reimbursement and clarification on the clinical fees.

After persistent bouts of inquiries, the School of Nursing told its students clinical fees support the vast infrastructure of administration to schedule and administer the nursing clinical program, not pay for specific resources, such as the medical site where the students practice. They also note that this is separate from the nursing program fee that supports “the additional resources and infrastructure needed to meet the requirements of the degree awarded.”

This interaction between IU’s nursing students and the School of Nursing administration is a clear demonstration on how difficult it is to gain information on IU’s finances and why students should scrutinize the fees they pay.

Mandatory fees:

Unlike the situational course fees or administrative fees, every IU student must pay the mandatory fees to attend IU. In past years, the mandatory fees were broken down into several categories, amounting to a charge of under $700 per semester.

At first glance, these fees seem reasonable. However, the mandatory fees have steadily grown in the past decade. The repair and rehabilitation fee, for example, was proposed as temporary in 2011. As the Graduate Worker Coalition noted, “It is now 2019, and the word ‘temporary’ has disappeared from the description in the fact-books the university produces each year.”

Effects of COVID-19

The mandatory fees became increasingly suspect during the COVID-19 pandemic. What was once listed as several mandatory fees with a clear purpose and subject, has since been turned into a combined mandatory fee of $703.19 with no further explanation. This move becomes more insidious when you consider some of the original mandatory fees went to services we no longer receive. Sections of the transportation fee and student activity fee, both mandatory fees, are arguably now obsolete due to reduced activities on campus.

Recreational sports, for example, have reduced available programming due to COVID-19. A look at the intramural sports website reveals video game options such as Rocket League or NBA 2k where flag football, basketball or soccer once stood.

The university did offer an option to waive portions of the combined mandatory fee. However, eligibility to receive this waiver is extremely narrow. To qualify, you must be living outside Bloomington and have all online classes.

Even students outside Bloomington were ineligible if one of their classes was labeled as “hybrid,” despite if they participated remotely. Only 40% of classes were categorized as online, so the probability of being a full-time student and having only online classes was very slim. Additionally, instructor decisions on the mode of course instruction was not released until this July, well after the scheduling period for most students.

The reality is most IU students will be paying the $703 combined mandatory fee. Without earmarking the mandatory fees for particular uses, our bursar bills pay into a de facto slush fund operated by our university.

Who sets our fees?

State law gives the Board of Trustees broad jurisdiction over the implementation of tuition and other fees. Special provisions require public hearings for all cost changes. Furthermore, any increases in price must be scheduled on a two year basis. Yet as we saw with the sudden quadrupling of international student fees, this is not universally applied.

“Aside from mandatory fees, the trustees must approve tuition, housing rates and academic program fees applied to specific majors,” clarified IU spokesperson Chuck Carney.

All other fees, including the contentious course-related fees, international student fees and other administrative fees are not reviewed by the Board of Trustees. Carney explains that these fees are submitted to the campus’ chief financial officer and provost for review.

Without the accountability of guaranteed public comment, dozens of expensive fees are put under the unquestioned authority of the campuses’ provost or chancellor, who can raise the fees without public notice.

Freeze the Fees

Student fees are a sneaky method of bloating the cost of college without going through traditional channels and facing public scrutiny. Unacceptable instances of rapid fee increase, such as the international student fee, illustrate the need for expanded accountability of the fee scheduling process. This can be accomplished through expanding the protections of Indiana state law to require public comment and scheduling for all fee increases, not just mandatory fees.

Transparency in our school’s finances is critical in keeping college affordable. When fees become too expensive or erratic, budgeting for college begins to be an impossible task. As students nationwide are racking up more than $1.6 trillion in debt, IU must evaluate how we contribute to this disturbing debt crisis. It’s up to all students to evaluate, organize and fight against rising costs of education.

Brian Hancock (he/him) studies Law and Public Policy and International Political Economy. He is the President of the Moot Court Club.

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