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COMMENTARY: University abuses student course fees

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At the July meeting of the University Board of Governors, the Board will vote to set tuition for the 2016-2017 school year. This is the price advertised to students when they apply, but upon enrollment one quickly finds that Rutgers has plenty more brilliant ways of taking your money — campus fees, school fees, computer fees, new student fees (Welcome to Rutgers!) and so on. Old Queens takes in our money through the front door and through the back door.

One expense that many students are familiar with is the course fee. These fees are intended to offset the expense of administering courses with costs beyond that of a normal lecture — lab equipment, specimens, performance tickets, etc. In many cases, however, these fees serve as a hidden "back door tuition." If you are a visual arts student, for example, you’ll find that over half the courses offered this semester by the department have some sort of fee attached. Of course, this narrow example ignores a broader problem with the phenomenon of course fees and differential tuition in general — whether it is just or morally right to charge more for an education in one subject compared to another. Courses and majors that are more expensive to administer should not be less accessible to those who are less able to afford them. In fact, for certain courses of study that are inherently exclusive to the well-off is profoundly at odds with the mission of the University.

Still, there are some legitimate uses for course fees. One instance many students are familiar with is Dance Appreciation, in which course fees pay for performers and tickets to performances.

Except to a great extent, they don’t. In Rutgers One, an alliance of activist students, staff and faculty, we have begun to research where the money from course fees goes. We started with Dance Appreciation, as many students are familiar with the course and its $170 fee. Through an Open Public Records Act, we found that the course routinely turns a profit of tens of thousands of dollars, which is banked to pay for other expenses not necessarily related to the course — in the case of the documents we reviewed, these include using course fees to pay for facility renovations and equipment improvements and, perhaps most onerously, direct transfers of funds to the pool of unrestricted reserves.

This diversion of funds violates the spirit of a course fee — a fee that the department uses to pay for goods and services that are returned back to the student. In the already opaque world of University finances, course fees are no exception: They lack transparency and oversight. We continue to investigate the ways in which fees are (or are not) used in the way students might expect, and we call upon administrators and the Board of Governors to ensure that funds are used for their intended purposes.

Those interested in the fight for a more financially honest and equitable University should attend the next meeting of Rutgers One, where we will discuss ongoing organizing on campus, as well as our work to fight for reduced course fees and tuition. We will meet at 11 Stone St., the home of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, at noon this Friday, April 15. 

Patrick Gibson is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in computer science and American studies.

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