College fees soar; flaws found in system

Fees at state colleges and universities jumped 142 percent from 2006 to 2010 while tuition increased 69 percent, according to a new state audit.

In addition to the dramatic rise, the audit found a wide variety of problems with administration of fees, ranging from lack of clear and complete information for parents and students to possibly inappropriate use of fees in a few instances at a few campuses.

“Existing controls governing the fee structure should be improved,” the auditors concluded, adding that improvement also is needed in “the transparency and consistency of Colorado’s current public higher education fee structure.”

Campus montage
From left, the campuses of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

Department of Higher Education officials told the Legislative Audit Committee, which spent more than 90 minutes reviewing the audit Tuesday, that they accept the auditors’ findings and plan to have fixes in place by September 2011.

In 2009-10, students paid $216 million in fees. Total tuition and fees rose 76 percent in that time period. In 2006, fees were 9 percent of total tuition and fees, rising to 13 percent in the 2009-10 school year. Statewide enrollment increased 14 percent during the period while state tax support of colleges slid 42 percent.

Major findings and recommendations of the audit include:

• Lack of complete information about fees for parents and students: Auditors cited gaps and problems on both the DHE’s website and on institutional web pages. “The reality is … you can find that information. Not enough people know where to look for it,” said DHE director Rico Munn. “We need to lay it out in a much clearer way.” Munn noted that a new federal law requires colleges to have online cost calculators by next year.

• Inconsistency in student approval of fees. State law requires student body votes for certain kinds of fees, but there seem to be varying interpretations of which fees require such votes.

• Some fees may be higher than necessary. In some cases, auditors found that fund balances for certain fee-supported programs that were larger than the annual expenses of the programs.

Fee highlights & lowlights

  • Adams State has the highest undergrad mandatory fees ($1,742), the largest five-year increase (100 percent) and the highest percentage of fees as a part of total fees and tuition (39 percent).
  • The lowest fees are at some community colleges ($150), and at some of those colleges fees are only 5 percent of total tuition and fees.
  • Mesa State fees have declined 2 percent in the last five years.
  • Fee increases over the last five years were 60 percent at CU-Boulder, 27 percent at CSU-Fort Collins, 79 percent at UNC and 42 percent at Metro.

• Questionable uses of fees. Auditors reviewed 217 expenses from fee accounts at six campuses. Of those 30 didn’t match allowable uses, and nine were considered “questionable” uses. The major problem seemed to be that fee revenue was mixed with other kinds of income, making it impossible to track which dollars were used for which expenses. Among spending noted by the auditors were payment of staff country club fees and purchase of a Nuggets playoff ticket. (The colleges weren’t identified.)

• Incomplete review of fee policies by DHE. While state law and the constitution give college trustees wide financial latitude, colleges are supposed to follow overall fee policies approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. The auditors found gaps in department review of campus policies. The auditors also noted a lack of independent reviews of fee spending at some campuses.

• Lack of a clear distinction between tuition and fees. The auditors said there sometimes is no clear difference between the spending of tuition revenue and fees, and that there needs to be clearer definition of fees and a third category, what are called “charges for service.” Those generally include such things as application fees and charges for adding or dropping courses.

The state higher education system has been under increasing financial pressure in recent years, primarily because state tax support has declined steadily, forcing boards of trustees to rely more heavily on tuition, fees and outside funding.

Rico Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education

“Student fees at one point were a relatively nominal part” of college costs, Munn told the committee. “As state support has decreased student fees have become a more significant part of that mixture.”

Deputy State Auditor Cindi Stetson said, “The fee structure in higher education is highly complex.”

The audit reinforced that, saying, “the array of student fees … is complex and … can be assessed for virtually any purpose.” Fees are imposed for student government and programs, campus construction projects, student centers and health clinics, insurance, athletics and recreation, and administrative services. In addition, there is a wide range of fees for specific courses.

As state funding for campus construction projects has dried up in recent years, some institutions have raised fees to pay for new buildings.

Auditors did a detailed examination of 215 fees at six of the state’s 25 institutions, including the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University-Fort Collins, Mesa State College, Metropolitan State College, Northeastern Junior College and Pikes Peak Community College. They also used DHE reports to provide a statewide picture of fees.

At the six institutions reviewed, the number of campus-wide mandatory fees ranged from five to 23.

The audit recommended that the CCHE and college boards work together to reform the fee structure, “with the overall goal of developing a more rational fee system,” in the words of Stetson.

In anticipation of the audit, the commission on Aug. 5 created a committee of students and college financial officers to study campus fees.

While audit committee members generally went easy on DHE executives, there was an undercurrent of disagreement about how standardized an improved fee system should be, including the definition of “student benefit.”

Mark Cavanaugh, DHE chief financial official, agreed that “we could use some additional help here” but warned against hamstringing individual institutions.

Committee member Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said there “needs to be a set definition, a known definition, something hard and fast.” He added, “There likely will be a recommendation [for legislation] at some point out of this committee.”

The higher ed lobbyists attending the meeting undoubtedly took note.

The audit also found minor problems with procurement – primarily a few instances of late reporting of purchasing card spending – at CSU-Fort Collins, Mesa and Metro.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”