How they spend our money: A look at what the $225 student services fee pays for
Riley Connell's parents were blindsided by an unexplained student service fee they had to pay to send their daughter to college.
“I kind of feel like a cash-cow,” Connell, a St. Clair sophomore, said.
Horton graduate student Brooklynn Watkins said she doesn't use the same student resources as undergraduates, but she still forked over the $225.
“I honestly don’t know what this is for,” Watkins said.
Richard Campbell served in the U.S. Army for six years and is now seeking a degree in mechanical engineering. He said he values honesty and transparency.
“When you say ‘student services’ that could really mean anything,” the Macomb senior said.
These students never received a clear explanation from Central Michigan University about the $225 student services fee that was implemented during the 2018-19 academic year. In June 2018, the Board of Trustees approved the implementation of a fee in lieu of a tuition increase.
The fee revenue was to be allocated specifically to "student services."
Almost every student enrolled in credit-bearing courses pays the fee each semester. There are a few exemptions, including:
- Students eligible for active-duty military rates
- College of Medicine students (CMED students pay an annual rate, not per credit)
- High school students who are dual-enrolled
- Senior citizens auditing courses
- Students enrolled in non-credit-bearing education and professional development courses
- CMU students who directly enroll at host institutions for study abroad
- Students studying abroad at CMU through the tuition exchange program
Until 2005, the university charged a variety of different fees that were earmarked for specific functions on campus. During the 2004-05 academic year, students paid seven fees separate from tuition. These fees were:
- Enrollment fee
- Student activity center fee
- Student programming fee
- Student technology fee
- Capital improvement fee
- Library fee
- Student publication fee (which provided funding to Central Michigan Life)
At the June 2005 board of trustees meeting President Michael Rao proposed a different tuition model – the CMU Promise.
The CMU Promise guaranteed a flat tuition rate for up to five years, and rolled all of the separate fees into the cost of tuition. The CMU Promise ended in 2008 after the recession, but student fees didn’t return until 2018.
Where did it come from?
The discussion about creating a student fee started when the Office of Financial Planning and Budgets began creating budget models for the 2018-19 academic year, explained Joe Garrison, executive director of Financial Planning and Budgets.
Modeling is based on projected enrollment and state appropriations. Garrison's office models dozens of different scenarios to see which models are the most feasible. Then, Garrison communicates with the President's Cabinet about which models to consider.
The cabinet is made up of Executive Vice President and Provost Mary Schutten along with multiple vice presidents. These vice presidents spearhead various departments and offices such as finances, external relations and university communications. This group decides which budget models work best for the upcoming academic year, based on their priorities for the university.
The final budget model is presented to the Board of Trustees, typically in June, for approval.
Last year, the cabinet wanted to prioritize student services. The idea of a fee seemed ideal because those funds could be directly applied to those services. With the current budget model at CMU, a tuition increase couldn't guarantee that funds would go to those services.
The university’s budget model provides autonomy to colleges by collecting tuition dollars, allocating money to each college, and the money the colleges don’t use, gets returned and spent on university-wide services.
Heather Smith, interim associate vice president of University Communications said this summer that the university was working on a statement to explain how the revenue was disbursed. She said it would be posted on go.cmich.edu, the admissions website.
“The goal of that is to make sure the students know we are being transparent, that we’ve got this information out there,” Smith said. “It’s critical that they understand where these dollars are going to help maintain these services and enhance some other things.”
An explanation was posted by the university on Dec. 9, 2019, a year-and-a-half after the fee was first implemented.
Parma graduate student Elizabeth Breton attended Siena Heights University, a Roman Catholic university with fewer than 3,000 students. She said CMU hasn’t reached the same level of transparency as her previous school.
“When I did my undergrad, whenever tuition would increase you would get a letter in the mail explaining why it’s increasing and what it’s going toward,” Breton said.
Until last summer, Central Michigan University was the only public university in Michigan to not charge lower level/ upper level tuition, block tuition, program- or course-specific tuition, or mandatory fees, according to the Michigan Association of State Universities 2017-18 report on tuition and fees.
How was the money spent?
At the June 2018 meeting when the trustees approved the student services fee, the university released a list of places the revenue might be allocated. The list included:
- Academic advising efforts
- Career development and placement services
- Counseling services
- Leadership development for all students
- Financial wellness and management initiatives
- Mentoring and success coaching
- Student engagement programming
- Student recreation and wellness
- Technology upgrades and support
- Campus safety
The university charged the fee three times last year – and collected $10.3 million – but still hasn’t released information about where the money was allocated during the 2018-19 academic year.
So, where did those dollars go?
This summer, Central Michigan Life spoke with Garrison, about where the idea for a student services fee came from and how the money was spent last year.
There are three main ways the revenue was used according to Garrison: To preserve services that faced budget reductions due to decreasing enrollment, to provide base funding to initiatives that were being supported by a temporary or one-time distribution of funds and for adding resources "to improve student success."
About 60-65 percent of the funds, Garrison said, are paying for personnel.
Garrison said 30 percent of the fee money went to preserve existing services. That distribution includes roughly $2 million devoted to paying for faculty advising and support. That money helped pay for faculty and staff salaries in academic colleges. Another $1 million went to the Office of Enrollment and Student Services.
Typically, when a new office or initiative is created, it is funded on a temporary basis. The university then measures the effectiveness of the office or initiative. The Office of Student Success was funded on a temporary basis for several years, Garrison said. This year, the Cabinet allocated about $1 million of the revenue from the fee to provide base funding to OSS and success coaches in residence halls.
"The (Office of Student Success) was largely funded out of one-time funds for three or four years," Garrison said. "Only the director position was base-funded."
The other 59 percent of the fee money paid for additional staff, equipment and expenses for on-campus offices and programs. The largest portion of that allocation – around $2.5 million – went to academic advising.
The fee put some money into advising, but Garrison said most of it went toward the discovery phase of a new student information system. The system allows advisers can see which courses students have taken and need to take.
“One of the goals here is positively impacting the student experience,” Garrison said, “There’s real cost savings if students can get out in four years.”
Another $1.8 million went to researching and adopting new scheduling software, which allows for multi-semester scheduling.
"We're trying to remove administrative barriers for students," Garrison said. "Multi-semester scheduling keeps students engaged by letting them see what their year will look like, not just one semester."
Garrison said the cost for software surprised him.
“The dollar amounts that you would see toward what the software would cost opened my eyes significantly,” Garrison said. “Some of them were $2-3 million on a one-time basis and ongoing license.”
The other almost 16 percent went to a variety of areas to pay for staffing, programming and supplies. This included:
- Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion - $442,900
- Campus Safety - $360,500
- Counseling Center - $288,400
- Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity (OCRIE) - $257,500
- Graduation and Convocation Ceremonies - $154,500
- Sports Medicine and Athletic Training - $110,000
Two of the expenses not included in the original list released by the university last year, were graduation and convocation ceremonies and athletic training.
Prior to the student services fee, the budget for graduation ceremonies sat at $104,000. Convocation ceremonies were reintroduced to CMU in 2017 and were funded by “one-time” financial support.
By utilizing the student services fee, the entire convocation budget was funded in the 2018-19 academic year. However, the fee only makes up 53 percent of total graduation ceremony costs.
With the new budget for graduation, CMU organizes eight ceremonies annually. The ceremony experience will be enhanced with additional security, medical staffing, interpreter services and higher quality print materials, Garrison said.
“When the university wants more money, I usually think it’s for sports,” said Connell. “I would assume all parts of the fee have to fund something all students can benefit from, otherwise why would you charge everyone for it?”
Garrison said $110,000 went to athletics to hire two trainers for student athletes.
“There were two positions (added) that were student athlete-dedicated trainers, because student athletes are students as well,” Garrison said.
Garrison specified that none of the revenue went to the Chippewa Champions Center or the College of Medicine.
Last fall, Garrison spoke at a student government association meeting to explain the rationale for the fee. He highlighted some of the services that the fee covered, like advising, counseling and campus safety. SGA President Jake Hendricks said students received the presentation well, especially because they were confused about why the fee was introduced in the first place.
Hendricks said he was glad that the fee improved services like advising and counseling. However, he wishes CMU will be more transparent in the future.
“It is my hope that if more fees are to be charged to students in the future, students will be able to see where those dollars are allocated to,” Hendricks said. “As of this date, we have not seen the breakdown of how the fund was allocated.
"It's important that if students are charged a fee, that they know where that money is allocated, much like where their tuition dollars are going.”