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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Colleges Add Fees As State Funding Dwindles

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Flickr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

During the Great Recession, 48 states cut spending on higher education, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That funding has not rebounded. North Carolina colleges and universities lost 25 percent in state funds since 2008. South Carolina schools lost about 40 percent. To make up for those cuts schools are charging students a variety of special fees.

Because of the new and increases in existing fees, parents can no longer simply add up the cost of tuition and room and board to figure out how much they will need to pay for college. Schools are charging students for things many never paid for before. Some added library, Wi-Fi, and course fees which can range from a few dollars to a couple thousand.

“In some cases it may give students something they really want—a new student union—but that’s not always the case,” said Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik. “In many cases, they cover academic related topics and to many people, that’s what tuition is supposed to pay for so it’s harder for a student’s family to look at tuition and say this is what we’re going to need over the next four years.”

In the UNC System for example, there’s a special $500 computer fee for engineering students at NC State. Emergency Medical Care students at Western Carolina are charged a $700 fee and studio art and art history majors at UNC Greensboro are paying a new $400 and $100 fee, respectively. UNC System COO Charles Perusse blames the fees mainly on the recession and state cutbacks.

“The year before the recession we were at $2.6 billion and we’re at $2.5 billion,” Perusse said. “So over seven years, we’ve lost $100 million in state appropriations.”

But not everything can be blamed on the recession. This year, students on all 17 UNC System campuses will pay a first-time $30 annual security fee. Beth Hardin, UNC Charlotte’s vice chancellor for business affairs, says the fee was needed to comply with stricter federal regulations on how schools report and respond to campus crimes.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn/WFAE
UNC Charlotte's budget director Sherrie High (left) and Beth Hardin (right), vice chancellor for business affairs say fees account for 45 percent of what in-state undergraduates pay each year.

“For many campuses, the campus security fee is the only way to get money to devote to security increasing costs,” Hardin said. “I think in some cases, people would prefer the campus reallocate money but for campuses where enrollment was shrinking that is difficult to do, so $30 was a reasonable compromise.”

Most of the new and increased special fees are not across the board. Many involve specific course and lab fees and fees to upgrade and maintain equipment for science, computer, journalism or music programs.

But a lot of those fees can be high. For example, some UNC-Chapel Hill dental students will pay a $2,500 instrument management fee and filmmaking students at UNC School of the Arts will pay a more than $1,300 special fee this year.

“We don’t fee people to death,” said Perusse. “Fees have been going up similar to undergrad tuition rates, but we have a 5 percent cap annually on what tuition and fee increases can be. If you look at us and across the country, we’re probably at the low end of the scale because of that 5 percent cap.”

Which might explain why the course fee list for the UNC System schools is light when compared to Winthrop University’s in Rock Hill. Winthrop has special fees for nearly 600 courses. They range from $5 to $65 for biology and political science classes and $15 to $140 for arts classes. There are $50 to $200 fees for chemistry courses and $25 to $100 fees for foreign language and math classes.

“Things like course and lab fees, we are careful to list them in the course books so students are aware of those fees,” said Jeffrey Perez, Winthrop senior counsel for public affairs.

A lot of Winthrop’s course fees were added during the recession years such as an annual library fee that’s now $80. Officials say it’s needed because the library is open 24 hours on weekdays. There’s also a $70 safety fee. That was added to beef up security in response to shootings on other campuses. Freshmen are exempt from the library fee but they do have to pay a $50 post office fee if they live on campus.

Perez pointed to reduced state funding as the reason for the increased fees.  

“Those increases have not been near to the loss in state aid. Since 2008, in Winthrop’s case, we went from $26 million in state aid to $13 million,” Perez said.

UNC Charlotte officials say fees account for about 45 percent of what in-state undergraduates pay each year to attend school there. With the economy steadily improving, UNC Charlotte’s business affairs vice president Hardin thinks their fees have peaked and is not predicting new ones for the future.

“I think we’re far enough past the Great Recession to see that. We’re concerned about affordability and accessibility, so the fees are one issue, but getting students to graduate is the best thing we can do. We don’t need to add anymore fees,” Hardin said.

But the revenue challenge will remain. State funding per student at UNC Charlotte is still below pre-recession levels.