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Students balk at activity fees

| Monday, March 19, 2012

Although Samantha Horn keeps an eye on the weather, she's not a member of the meteorology club.

She does not know how to waltz, so she has never considered joining the Ballroom and Latin Dance Club.

And the Young and Gifted Gospel Choir and Pro Golf Management Club are not even on her radar.

So Horn's not pleased that her annual $540 student activity fee at California University of Pennsylvania goes to support groups she did not even know existed.

"There are way too many fees," said Horn, 19, of Arnold City. "I'm not too fond of paying for a club I've never heard of or belong to."

Student activity fees have been a point of contention on college campuses for years. Lawsuits proceeding as far as the Supreme Court have challenged whether the fees can fund political or religious groups.

Records from Pennsylvania's 14 state universities show the fees -- ranging from $235 at Kutztown University to $900 at Mansfield University -- are spent on everything from the Paintball Club and the Paranormal Society to political speakers and fitness and leisure centers.

Such fees are drawing more scrutiny from cash-strapped students struggling to pay for school as grants and loans dry up.

Last year, New Jersey's Rutgers University was in the national spotlight when its student board was criticized for paying MTV's "Jersey Shore" star Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi $32,000 from its student activity fees for two hourlong question-and-answer sessions.

Polizzi earned $2,000 more than Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, who gave the commencement address last year.

One New Jersey lawmaker, Republican Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, introduced legislation requiring students to "opt in" to pay student activity fees. The bill died at the end of the legislative session last year.

"Students should not be further burdened with being forced to pay for events in which they will never participate or find improper," Kyrillos said.

Randi Miller, 20, a California University junior from Mifflintown in Juniata County, said the money could be better spent on books or another class. Miller is a member of the school's Speech and Hearing Club, which was awarded $5,000 this year.

"College is so expensive, and $500 a year -- I feel like it's a lot of money I could be using for things that could benefit my education directly," she said.

At California University, the nonprofit Student Association Inc. gets the largest share of student activities fee funding -- $1.05 million for the current school year -- for salary, benefits and professional fees for employees who work with students and oversee student activity functions. Examples of SAI employees include the Greek Life adviser, student media advisers and fitness center staff.

The school's athletic programs receive the second-largest amount of funding, $655,000.

At many colleges, activity fees are set by the school's president with consultation from student government boards.

"If he or she (a president) sees something that is inappropriate, they cannot fund something," said Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which represents the state schools. "But it really is the student organization that makes the determination on how to spend the funds."

Each school sets up its own system for distributing the funds.

At Kutztown University, student government President Paul Keldsen said groups must exist for a year before applying for funding. There are limits on various expenses, such as travel and office supplies.

"We try to be fair to everyone," said Keldsen, 26, of West Chester, who helped award $1.7 million to student groups this year.

Still, the fees have sparked controversy, often because of divergent political views.

A total fee to bring conservative pundit Ann Coulter to Penn State's main campus in 2008 was never disclosed, but university officials said $10,000 from the student activity fee was used to supplement the cost, sparking controversy on campus.

The fees vary because some schools roll in charges for student unions and fitness centers, while others collect those fees separately.

Daniel Hurley of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities said funding these kinds of activities on campus is essential.

"When you have a campus with several thousand young adults that need an outlet, it makes darn good sense to spend a small share of revenues to have those physical fitness centers," Hurley said.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania charged students $551 annually, collecting $6.8 million this year. Almost 30 percent -- about $2 million -- is used to pay the student union lease, according to records.

The remaining balance is distributed among administrative salaries ($435,000), athletics ($889,699) and various student clubs and activities, such as the Paranormal Society of IUP. That group, which investigates claims of paranormal occurrences on campus and surrounding areas, received $305 this year.

Club President Chelsea Forbes, 21, of Mt. Pleasant said the club allocates the money for tape-recording equipment used during paranormal investigations in Keith Hall. Without student government funding, club dues would increase, dissuading prospective members, she said.


A look at the fees collected at the 14 state universities:

Bloomsburg University

Annual fee: $261.50 per student

Generates: $1,932,563

California University of Pennsylvania

Annual fee: $540 per student

Generates: Declined to provide

Cheyney Universit y

Annual Fee: $316 per student

Generates: $201,167

Clarion University

Annual fee: $356 per student

Generates: Declined to provide

East Stroudsburg University

Annual fee: $277.36 per student

Generates: Declined to provide

Edinboro University

Annual fee: $403 per student

Generates: $1,643,818

Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Annual fee: $551 per student

Generates: $6,772,000

Kutztown University

Annual fee: $235 per student

Generates: Declined to provide

Lock Haven University

Annual fee: $344 per student

Generates: Declined to provide

Mansfield University

Annual fee: $900 per student

Generates: Declined to provide

Millersville University

Annual fee: $366 per student

Generates: Declined to provide

Shippensburg University

Annual fee: $450 per student

Generates: $3,219,000

Slippery Rock University

Annual fee: $327.60 per student

Generates: Declined to provide

West Chester University

Annual fee: $328.66 per student

Generates: $3,730,643

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