Control of student fees in balance

With the state budget for the Oregon University System falling $96 million short for this biennium, legislators in Salem are scrambling to find a way to make up for those losses, including adjusting student fees.

The Oregon Student Association, ASPSU and students across the state have been making the trek to Salem for the last two weeks in an effort to shape the way politicians resolve the issue.

One of the first issues that the OSA had to address, according to OSA Chair Mary Cunningham, was the impression of partisanship that many local politicians seemed to have.

“I think some of the senators and representatives had the impression that we were partisan, whether it was toward Democrats, Republicans, independents, whatever. So we had to clear up some misconceptions first of all.”

Issues were raised by legislators about Democrat speakers at Portland State – such as Al Gore and Gloria Steinem – last year, implying that the issue was in fact, partisan. “And we are not,” Cunningham said. “College Democrats invited those speakers here. If the College Republicans want to arrange for republicans to speak, more power to them – that’s great.”

OSA represents all Oregon students in the Oregon University system, promoting their rights to the legislature, among other things. “Education is a non-partisan issue, and that is how we approach it,” Cunningham said.

In addition to the issue of partisanship, student fees are now being questioned by politicians. This is not the first time, of course, that the legislature has addressed the student fee process. In 1997, 20 motions were made that threatened to change or dismantle the way incidental student fees were handled, but none were successful.

Sen. Randy Miller and Rep. Betsy Close have raised concerns about how student fees are decided upon and allocated. At Portland State, full-time students pay $127 per term for incidental fees, which go to such programs as athletics, the student union building (Smith Center), student publications, student organizations and many others.

“We have spent the last two weeks explaining that student fees are decided upon in a democratic process,” Cunningham said. “I think their worry is that people don’t participate in elections and our voter participation is low. But it’s like any government: you have the right to use your voice, but if you don’t do so, why should others be punished because they do?”

Some student fees do go to controversial groups, which have drawn attention from politicians, such as the new Queer Resource Center in Corvallis, and students do not have the option of withholding their fees from those groups.

This may be what has led to talk of a “check-off system,” in which students would “check-off” which incidental fee-funded groups or programs they would like to support. There are several problems that could potentially arise from such a system.

First, the list of programs supported by incidental fees is enormous, and would overburden students, Cunningham said. Budgeting for programs would also be a concern, as budgetary expectations could change on a quarterly basis.

In addition, the average student is ignorant of what many of the programs are or how they benefit from them, which threatens the viability of less well-known groups. According to Cunningham, this system may ironically threaten the viability of OSA itself, Oregon students’ primary advocacy group.

Cunningham and others worked in Salem over spring break collecting statements of support for student control of student fees from legislators, and student representatives have been providing testimony to the Legislative Ways and Means Sub-Committee on Education for the last three days. Student organizations especially, Cunningham said, have shown great concern and support because the loss of student incidental fees would mean the loss of their funding. Community members, corporate representatives and institutional presidents have also addressed the committee.

Shane Jordan, student fee committee chair at Portland State, spoke to the committee Monday about the incidental fee process and illustrated its democratic function. Afterwards, Cunningham addressed OSA’s stance opposing Gov. Kitzhaber’s proposed eight-percent tuition increase, but was cut off by committee leaders before she finished.

Legislators are now in session, taking suggestions on the budget from the Legislative Fiscal Committee. Motions on incidental fees could be made as early as Tuesday.

Cunningham hopes that politicians in Salem will recognize the incredible value of the programs and organizations funded by incidental fees: “It creates a marketplace of ideas so that your education is not only about books and studying, but also about experiences.”