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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.