Views expressed in guest columns are the author’s own.
As a state-funded institution, the University of Maryland is intended to be an affordable option for in-state students seeking a higher education. However, state-mandated caps prevent this university from budgeting all of its expenses under tuition — hence, students being forced to pay exorbitant “student fees.”
Student fees are meant to fund non-educational student services, but the current student fee system is based on flawed reasoning and assumptions about who ought to pay for what on a college campus. The problem is threefold: Departments and activity groups propose fee increases without considering the financial impact on students, the fee-setting procedure lacks transparency and groups are quick to increase student fees to cover their budgeting shortfalls.
Over the past decade, graduate students saw a 50 percent increase in student fees. The annual cost of $1,918 per undergraduate and $1,620 per graduate student make our student fees the second-highest in the Big Ten. These charges are recommended by university President Wallace Loh and set by the Board of Regents. The fee raises are proposed by siloed departments, which operate within a complex and decentralized system, where each unit considers their own needs without considering the larger picture.
All the small fees add up to an immense sum that the student body is relied upon to cover. This system creates undue financial burden and stress on students who have no clear understanding of what they are paying for. Adopt the perspective of a consumer: Would you blindly trust and pay a mechanic $2,000 without an itemized bill?
There is a lack of transparency surrounding student fees. Not only do we not know exactly where our money is going, new students are often blindsided by them. Graduate students believe their funding will cover fees, but it does not, and the fees consume a significant portion of their income. This university’s minimum stipend for the academic year is $16,212 for full-time graduate assistants. This amount doesn’t include deductions for federal and state taxes, or health insurance costs. Graduate students pay roughly 12 percent of their stipend in fees, the equivalent of nearly one month’s pay.
Students pay fees for the general betterment of our peer community, which makes fees congeneric to taxes. Some universities, such as Michigan State, refer to their student fees as a tax. Viewed in this light, graduate students at this university earning the minimum stipend will pay 27.5 percent of their income in cumulative taxes, which is devastating to many. For context, a Maryland resident earning $80,000 per year would be subject to a slightly lower tax rate.
So, what do our student fees pay for? At a high-level, they pay for most, if not all, of the extracurriculars and services available on campus: shuttle buses, libraries, athletics, arts and other student activities. They also pay for salaries, tuition remission, benefits and cost of living increases for staff. We find value in many of these programs and services, but find it inappropriate that the student body should be treated as an ever-blooming money tree which pays for salaries and expenses that increase year after year.
The size of the student fees reflects this university’s use of them as the go-to solution for covering budgeting shortfalls. Departments find it easy to increase fees because advisory committees are rushed to make decisions. These committees are often not provided with enough information or time to make informed decisions before voting on the fee increase request. Additionally, fee governing bodies do not proactively discuss or plan fee decreases when appropriate.
In the spirit of shared governance, it is time that the student body, in partnership with the administration, develops feasible solutions for funding budgets in a manner that would reduce student costs. We recommend opt-in options to replace all mandatory fees, especially athletic fees which subsidize tickets to games. We also propose that this university turn to non-student fee resources, such as the alumni association, to cover salaries, benefits and cost of living expenses. In summary, we request that the administration cease the practice of billing students for budget shortfalls, and we call upon students to be more engaged and propose solutions.
Graduate Student Government Executive Board
CORRECTION: Due to a columnist’s error, an earlier version of this piece misspelled Casey Cavanagh’s name. The column has been updated.