Course load: Fees are inflating cost of colleges in Pennsylvania
State universities and community colleges often are the lowest-cost option for higher education in Pennsylvania, but student fees are inflating costs even at those institutions.
Under pressure from the state to mute tuition increases, institutions are adding fees and jacking up ones for technology services, student activities and buildings such as recreation, sports and health centers.
Fees remain a small part of the equation, but in some instances, they are increasing faster than tuition. And it is not unusual for mandatory fees to add as much as 20 percent to 30 percent on top of the cost of tuition.
“Frankly, (fees) are filling a gap,” said Michelle Fryling, spokewoman for Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
At IUP, where full-time students paid $3,214 a semester for tuition last year, seven mandatory fees for student activities, wellness, technology, registration, transportation, instruction and student services, brought the bill to $4,335.80.
The most recent addition: a $108-a-semester student services fee added in the fall of 2011 pays for career services, advising and student conduct programs.
“We are committed to keeping these services for students, and that is the way we've come up with funding them,” Fryling said.
Anne Gross, of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, said that is a common refrain at public institutions faced with shrinking state support. Changes in the federal tax code and increasing efforts to tell students exactly what they're paying for are driving the proliferation of fees, she said.
When establishing tuition-based federal tax credits, Congress determined that costs for recreation centers, sports facilities and health centers couldn't be included in the figure eligible for the credit.
“The colleges figured if they had to subtract them out, they might as well charge for them separately,” she said.
In Pennsylvania, state-owned schools can't pay for student recreation centers and student unions with tuition money.
California University of Pennsylvania spells out what eight mandatory fees totaling $1,293 a semester cover and why they are charged on top of $3,214 in tuition.
“We try to be as up-front as possible with our families,” said university spokeswoman Christine Kindl.
The board of governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which sets tuition at the 14 state-owned universities, including California, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities, also sets fees for technology service and academic enhancement. Last year, all 14 schools had a $179-a-semester technology fee plus an academic fee capped at 10 percent of tuition, or about $320.
Fees at some schools pay off projects approved when many incoming freshmen were still in middle school.
Slippery Rock University's website notes that students in 1994 approved a fee, now $87 a semester, to fund the construction and operation of the Aebersold Student Recreation Center.
Thomas Glosser, 21, a Slippery Rock senior majoring in criminology, cringes to think he's paid fees for facilities he has never used, including the school's health center, which carried a $145-a-semester fee last year.
“Why would I go to the health center when I have my own doctor? I think you should be able to opt out of those fees,” Glosser said.
Fellow Slippery Rock senior, Meagan Michael Little, 32, of Greenville said she doesn't mind “paying a little extra to have a nice college. If a college doesn't have a good gym and a good library, people look at it a little differently when you say you went there.”
While recreation centers may be a draw for students, Michael Poliakoff, vice president of the American Council of Alumni and Trustees, said schools should weigh such projects carefully.
“Just how crucial to someone's education is a recreation center?” he asked.
Like the public universities, Pennsylvania's community colleges cite stagnant public subsidies and increasing costs as driving up fees.
At the Community College of Allegheny County, a student taking 10 credits next fall and paying $997.50 in tuition will have to pay an extra $267 in fees.
Jennifer Diminnie, of Homestead, 26, a nursing student at CCAC, said the technology fee, scheduled to increase from $12 per credit to $18.25 next fall, is costly, but at least CCAC provides high-quality computers and lets students print documents at no additional cost.
“That's nice. I've gone to other schools where everything you print out costs,” she said.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.