04/16/2012 01:32 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

Fee Fighters

In California, a recently introduced bill would give some university students veto power to oppose the enactment of new fees by their administrators. California State Sen. Michael Rubio proposed Senate Bill 960 in January, which specifically targets the California State University (CSU) system. At present, the chancellor who overlooks the CSU system needs only the approval of each campus' president to charge higher fees. He has done so, most recently adding a questionable "student success" fee at several of the CSU campuses. When new fees are proposed, CSU already has student advisory committees in place which are consulted but have little influence. Rubio's bill would unnecessarily require such committees or the student body to agree before administrators pass new fees.

Such a measure, at first glance, seems to advance student self-governance -- students who pay these fees should have the right to determine them. But then, students have the right to attend the school of their choosing and could avoid these fees by going elsewhere for college. Plus, not all students pay for their college directly, and it is odd to give them a say and not, say, their parents. These issues are secondary to the main concern, which is that individual students are more incentivized to oppose fees from which they may not benefit. Voting "no" could be affected by the whim or self-interest of many as fees are often aimed toward niche goals or projects.

More broadly, SB 960 is poorly designed and applied unevenly. The provision calls for student input on only one side of the fiscal equation. If student boards are required to approve an increase in fees they should also be asked to approve cuts in state appropriation for higher education. The California government has decreased funding to CSU schools by about $1 billion during the last several years. This one-sided legislation further handcuffs such schools by making revenue generation more difficult. Furthermore, the bill addresses only the CSU system, and legislation which targets only certain schools is an inadequate approach to governing.

In terms of self-governance, the current CSU advisory board may be largely symbolic. But this is taking things for granted -- at our self-governed university, we have no similar student committee to influence policy. Friday, our Board of Visitors raised in-state tuition and fees by 3.7 percent, the "smallest increase in a decade," according to UVaToday. In particular, the Board took care to raise general, mandatory fees equitably across the undergraduate body. Other, more significant changes, such as a new program fee in the Engineering School which charges students an additional $32 per credit hour, were tailored to cost only those who would benefit. The Board also approved phrase two of the Commerce School differential tuition plan, which was developed in consultation with the School's deans. Such collaboration shows that while the university has few standing student committees, the Board can still be responsive to ideas originating from those closer to students.

Administrators invited a handful of university students last Thursday for an explanation of why the Board was expected to increase tuition. In contrast, the CSU system could soon have a student board able to reject changes to fees before they are even implemented. The problem of democracy in colleges is not entirely solved by giving students more power. In California, students may be heard by administrators, but the administrators go ignored by politicians, and until universities can influence state appropriations, student self-governance means nothing.

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