Controversial ‘student success fees’ enter budget debate

They’re called “student success fees.”

Running several hundred dollars per semester, these new charges have cropped up at more than half of the campuses in the California State University system in recent years to generate revenue for initiatives that improve student success and completion rates. The millions in additional funds have paid for hiring faculty, adding course sections and technology upgrades.

They have also inspired a wave of controversy.

Critics of the fees say they are a workaround to the tuition freeze implemented in 2012 in exchange for increased state support. As more schools considered new fees this spring, students demonstrated outside the CSU board of trustees meeting in Long Beach and at campuses from Sonoma to San Diego.

Now the pushback has hit California budget talks, as lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown enter final negotiations ahead of a June 15 deadline.

Last week, Senate and Assembly committees proposed giving another $95 million to $100 million to CSU next year, directly challenging Brown’s budget priorities. CSU has been asking for the additional funding boost since January, when Brown suggested an increase of $142 million, or 5 percent, for the system in 2014-15.

But the Legislature’s proposed added funding would come on condition of a moratorium that would prohibit CSU campuses from raising or implementing new success fees for at least a year. The Senate proposal would extend the ban for 18 months, while the Assembly recommends requiring a student vote, sunset review process and an annual report on how the money is used.

“We don’t want to saddle our CSU students with further debt,” said Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, chairman of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education. “We wanted to send a strong signal to our state and our students that the Legislature is making public higher education among our top priorities.”

CSU applauded the proposed budget enhancement, noting that state funding remained below the 2007-08 academic year after hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts during the recession.

“We understand the Legislature’s interest in student success fees, and will be reviewing the policy and will not approve new fees until the policy review is completed,” Steven Relyea, CSU’s chief financial officer, said in a statement.

Student success fees have now been introduced at 12 of the 23 CSU campuses since 2011, as the university has turned to raising tuition and other sources of funding to offset budget cuts. Ranging from $162 per year at CSU San Bernardino State to $630 at San Jose State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, many of the success fees were implemented through a vote because students wanted to finish their degrees faster.

Criticism began to mount in the past few months, however, as more campuses debated adding or raising their success fees, which come on top of CSU’s $5,742 annual tuition for in-state students and often hundreds of dollars in other facilities, health and activities fees.

Sonoma State tabled plans for a new success fee in February after students circulated petitions threatening to withhold future donations to the school. San Jose State students staged a walkout in April when a budget review revealed that nearly 40 percent of success fee revenue went to athletics, leading the university to lower its fee by $40 for next year, rather than hiking it by $160 as originally planned.

CSU Dominguez Hills faced a series of protests in March, but moved ahead with a fee that will be phased in over five years.

Robert DeWitz, a senior majoring in organizational psychology who helped organize the demonstrations, said students were primarily concerned over affordability for the campus population, which is predominantly low-income and minority, with a high percentage of working mothers. But the lack of a student referemdum was also frustrating, he added.

“The students who are going to be most impacted are the students who are not even here yet to speak for themselves,” De Witz said.

Meredith Turner, director of governmental relations for the California State Student Association, which represents CSU students and has lobbied the Legislature for the increased funding, said they are not looking to eliminate the fees completely.

“We’re torn between trying to fund programs and academic quality on our campuses and the state doing it,” she said. “While we don’t think these fees are a great solution, do you really think it’s a great idea to take away the ability for campuses to address their own needs?”

The moratorium should be used to find improvements, however, she added, such as greater transparency and student input in how the money is used.

“Hopefully this will mean, moving forward, we won’t have to look at additional means of getting funding,” Turner said. “Hopefully fewer and fewer new fees will need to be added.”

University faculty has gotten involved in the opposition at some schools, such as Dominguez Hills, where two professors launched a petition to block the proposed fee.

Lillian Taiz, a professor of history at CSU Los Angeles and president of the California Faculty Association, which represents CSU professors, said the faculty is strongly opposed to student success fees.

“This is transferring the responsibility of funding higher ed from all of us together to individuals,” she said. It’s the “very worst thing you can possibly do.”

The faculty association also lobbied the Legislature this spring for the increased funding and supported a moratorium on the success fees, which Taiz said lack adequate student consultation and accountability.

“While we understand it’s the manifestation of the withdrawal of support for so many years, we think it’s the wrong solution,” she said. “I think what we’re certainly seeing is it’s not the will of the student.”

It’s unclear how much of the additional money CSU would receive. The Legislature’s budget plans include $2 billion to $3 billion more in spending than the governor’s May budget revision, which emphasized paying off debts and creating a rainy-day fund. Moreover, Brown has expressed repeatedly that he does not plan to increase higher education funding beyond the level in his January budget proposal.

“First you have a desire,” Brown said at the news conference for his May budget revision, “and then someone tells you how to turn the desire into a need, and then after a while the need gets turned into a right.”

“We’ve got to manage our needs going forward, and we have to find creative ways of satisfying these needs with the money available.”

If Brown rejected the Legislature’s proposed funding increase, Muratsuchi said foes could still pursue a moratorium on student success fees through legislation.

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