UC Davis student fees are highest in state system

Among the nine University of California undergraduate campuses, UC Davis charges the highest student fees, largely to support its emerging Division I athletics program and amenities like a state-of-the-art recreation center and upgraded coffee house.

The $1,703.66 UCD charges for the current school year is more than triple the lowest campus fee of $504.91 at UCLA, though that school has an additional one-time document fee of $165 for freshmen. The individual campus fees come on top of the systemwide $12,192 tuition set by UC regents.

Fees at other campuses range from $671.50 at UC Berkeley – plus a freshman-year document fee of $344 – to $1,554.48 at UC Santa Barbara, the closest to UC Davis.

Campus fees are seen as a vehicle to make up funding and complete projects that otherwise would have to wait. With nearly 26,000 undergraduates, UC Davis generates more than $43 million a year from fees. Of UCD’s eight campus fees, only one has an expiration date, a $66 seismic safety fee that will end in 2029. Some fees are subject to annual inflation adjustments.

Most recently, UCD students in February voted on an $11.64 fee to support the California Aggie student newspaper. Though the referendum appeared to pass, a student court on Wednesday invalidated the election over procedural issues after an opponent challenged the outcome. The newspaper has stopped publishing a print edition as it looks for new funding.

Separately, student leaders are considering a fee next year of up to $60 for a variety of services, according to Patrick Sheehan, student assistant to the chancellor.

UC Davis officials said that most of the fees originate from students through the referendum process. Such votes, however, are purely advisory since UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi and UC President Janet Napolitano reserve the right to change or veto a fee proposal.

“There are certain things that the student body wanted, and they’re willing to tax themselves to have those things,” said Emily Galindo, UCD’s associate vice chancellor of student affairs.

Several recent capital projects have been financed primarily by student fees, including the Activities and Recreation Center ($46.5 million, opened in 2004), Student Health and Wellness Center ($50.3 million, 2010), Student Community Center ($22 million, 2012) and the student Coffee House ($8 million, 2010).

In 2002, student voters approved UCD’s single-largest fee, the $548.81 Campus Expansion Initiative, more than a third of which funds athletic scholarships. That vote was considered crucial to UCD’s move from Division II to Division I athletics, which became official in 2007.

As part of this transition, the university built a new $31 million football stadium and a new aquatic center, using money from a 1999 facilities fee. The athletics department budget soared from $7.8 million in 2003 to $23 million in 2012, according to the university.

Mark Champagne, who served as business manager for the Associated Students of UC Davis for 32 years, has witnessed a multitude of student fee referendums. He said the fee proposals came from various interest groups on campus, including the athletics department.

“The administration doesn’t typically propose fees, but they can put ideas forward,” Champagne said, noting that the fees were commonly bundled in a package to support a wide array of programs.

For instance, the Campus Expansion Initiative not only funded athletic scholarships, but Unitrans bus service, Coffee House improvements and the new Student Health and Wellness Center.

Sheehan, who will graduate in June, is spearheading a campaign to get a fee of up to $60 before voters next year. Supporters are still working on how the money would be spent . Student government and Unitrans service are high on the priority list. But the campus radio station, study-abroad programs and environmental projects are also being considered.

On average, turnout for an election hovers in the 20 percent to 30 percent range, past and current student government leaders said. It isn’t hard for a measure to win more than 60 percent approval as required, especially for projects that appear to support student services, they said.

Champagne said most students are indifferent toward campus elections because they are focused on their education, while stakeholders who stand to benefit from the fees have strong motivation to vote.

Higher-education experts said universities are using fees as vehicles to pay for amenities that have become essential in the race to attract students. UC Davis’ admissions website touts the Activities and Recreation Center as a “location for every kind of indoor athletic activity,” including basketball courts, an indoor track and a rock-climbing wall.

“There was a feeling of an arms race in higher education,” said Kristan Venegas, associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California. “When public institutions bring in less revenue, they increase campus fees.”

Chancellor Katehi, who arrived in 2009, has made campus expansion one of her top priorities. In 2011, she launched the “2020 Initiative,” an ambitious enrollment plan that would grow the student population by 5,000 undergraduates within the decade. The plan would also dramatically increase the number of out-of-state students, who pay almost three times as much in tuition.

Before the February vote on the newspaper fee, vocal critic Alex Tavlian warned that the measure’s approval would open the floodgates to other campus organizations asking students for money. “The administration should be more willing to say no,” he said. “It really comes down to what students need. Is it absolutely essential to attending college?”

Tavlian suggested that fees – past and future – should be given an expiration date, in order to increase accountability. UC Berkeley has taken that path. A $4 fee to support the Daily Californian student newspaper will end after five years. A fee for the bus system has a term of seven years.

A portion of UC Davis’ fees are redirected to financial aid, which offsets the burden for low-income students. Tavlian countered that the action leaves middle-class students, like himself, in a quandary.

“We’re too poor to pay for college, but too rich for financial aid,” he said.