Should college students pay more for some classes?
Students start class at the University of Kentucky on Wednesday, and for parents, that means money. Money for tuition, housing, food and books.
But when many look at their bills closely, they might find that tuition isn’t the only charge for classes. At UK, about a third of classes have course fees. They may be small — $10 for a journalism class — or large — $2,000 for Engineering 394, a joint class with the MBA program.
Course fees are not new, but they were historically imposed only on laboratory classes, where chemicals and equipment cost more. Now those fees are charged for agriculture classes, economics courses and nearly every class in the College of Engineering.
Lisa Wilson, associate provost for finance and operations, said course fees started proliferating in earnest in 2005, about the same time state budget cuts started. “They’ve grown over time and that’s due to a lot of different reasons, but it’s mostly due to the cost of instruction on a lot of things,” Wilson said.
In other words, it costs more to educate engineers than English majors. So instead of making all students pay more, they ask for a little more from engineering majors. Almost every class in engineering now carries a fee of $59.30, up from $57.60 the year before.
These fees are different from the mandatory student activity fees that add up to about $680 per semester. Those include $160 for student health, $81 for the student center renovation, $99 for technology and $7 for athletics.
Course fees are decided on by each college. For example, A-S 270 in the College of Fine Arts is a ceramics class for non-majors, so the $125 fee is for clay, and firing of ceramics. Forestry 359, forest operations and utilization, which helps students plan and design timber harvests, costs $530 extra.
Course fees are budgeted to bring in $21.8 million this fiscal year. That’s about 4 percent of all tuition and fees.
In addition, UK added another big fee this year: $500 for all 520 students entering the new Lewis Honors College, which opened with a new dorm and classroom building this fall.
“That is a bit unique,” Wilson said. “That’s in order to provide them the experience we think they deserve.”
Wilson said this fee, like all others, is not charged to students who are eligible for a Pell grant, the federal standard for low-income students. Academic scholarships also cover fees.
UK is not unique. Numerous schools have added class fees, but Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity at Ohio University, said they’ve largely grown at big public universities.
“It has spread rather rapidly in the past 10 to 20 years, partly because universities were being criticized for raising general tuition, so instead they try to raise the money through the back door as it were. One way is to have specialized course fees that are greater than they used to be,” Vedder said.
Robert Grossman is the parent of a UK engineering student, so he’s sensitive to those extra charges. However, he’s also a chemistry professor, so he understands why they’re there.
“In chemistry, lab classes cost money, either you charge the students who are taking the class, or you raise tuition for everyone,” Grossman said. “There’s always a balance that one has to strike between charging fees for specific courses or charging all the students for all the courses.”
He also said departments must make a very good case to their dean about why a class fee should be added. Final approval is made by the provost’s office. But, he said, “as a parent, I’m not being told why these classes have to charge these fees.”
Rachel Shane, chairwoman of the department of arts administration, said course fees are used only when there is a direct cost associated with a course that is beyond basic funding.
For example, the course fee for UK’s online masters in arts administration pays for a premium subscription to a website that allows people to analyze non-profit budgets over time.
Occasionally, course fees go down. Shane’s department dropped a fee recently that paid for a software program after UK negotiated with the company to provide the program across campus, she said.
“It goes back and forth both ways,” Shane said.
Dean of Engineering Larry Holloway said the average amount an engineering student pays for course fees is about $360 a semester.
“The fee is used to pay for expenses associated with student success related to instructional labs, technical support, computer software, and a variety of other students-support activities,” Holloway said. “We also look at the benchmarking at other institutions and what they do in terms of some of their fees. Engineering is an expensive degree because of the importance of all the lab classes, lab activities, supplies and technical support for those.”
A detailed listing of fees can be found in UK’s annual budget document under “Tuition, Fees and Rate Schedule.”
Ben Childress, president of the UK Student Government Association, said he thinks parents and students are confused about such fees, which is why his team is currently going over the 2017-2018 budget, which was approved in June.
“The more transparency about where the money is going, the better,” he said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what pays for what.”
For many parents and students, course fees go largely unnoticed given that the total cost of attendance is more than $26,000 a year.
UK senior Matt Kipling, a math and science major, has no problem with the extra fees.
“They help with different costs of whatever a department needs,” he said. “There’s a lot of upkeep in science labs.”
Colleen McClary of Owensboro, whose daughter attends UK, said the fees are to be expected.
“We’ve been paying fees since middle school, so it’s nothing new,” McClary said.
Another freshman parent, Cathy Fritz, said she’s used to course fees but “you would think everything would be part of the total tuition.”
Wilson said colleges have to make a strenuous argument to the provost’s office for adding or increasing fees, which tend to go up slightly year to year.
“We don’t add these lightly,” she said. “They have to be really, really specific about why the fee is necessary, how they intend to spend it, and they have to make sure they’re staying within certain targets. They can’t make money on it.”