As more and more extra fees and charges creep into the financial system at Portland State University, students are beginning to wonder if they are being “nickel-and-dimed” to extinction.
The price of a college education today resembles more and more the atmosphere of the old-time carnival sideshow. The barker stands out front and lures you in with promises of the great spectacles to be seen inside the big tent.
“See the invisible man,” he exhorts.
You pay your fees and you go in. Sure, for your admission fee you get to see the usual stuff – the tattooed couple, the alligator boy, the fire eater, the half-man half-woman. But when it comes to the most exciting feature, the invisible man, you have to cough up an extra fee.
Something similar seems to unfold at Portland State. The basic tuition and basic fees come high enough, and they are going even higher with the recently announced surcharge. But paying them only gets you inside the door. As you fan out to various courses, you find the extra charges mounting up. And they continue to grow. Many new charges were added fall term, and once added, they’re not likely to go away.
The winter 2003 schedule of courses lists 70 different subjects or categories, from administration of justice to partially online courses. Of those, only 24 are totally free of extra fees. That means about 65 percent of all course categories can catch the student with an extra fee for some courses. In some categories, there is an extra fee for all courses.
One faculty member, who did not wish to be identified, voted against an additional fee but admitted it was deemed essential to keep the instruction up to par. In this case, it was called a study resource fee. This term has become popular in a number of academic areas that have decided to assess a fee to everybody.
The typical student may wonder if the university is engaging in some kind of gentle gouging. A frequent complaint is, “Are we being nickel-and-dimed to death?”
The pinch really does begin at the nickel-and-dime level. Almost everyone needs to photocopy, which means patronizing a photocopy machine. The standard coin-in-slot machine on campus requires a dime per copy. Millar Library maintains its own system. The user buys a photocopy card for $1 and, through a machine, can charge up its value like a debit card.
At one time, this proved a great value since the copy machines in the library deducted only a nickel for every copy. Then, rising costs raised the deduction to 8 cents per copy. Currently, the card represents only convenience. Library copies cost a dime, the same as money-in-the-slot machines.
Another student gripe has been the parking meters. Citywide, parking meters charge to park from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. But some meters on campus charge until 7 p.m., often catching the unwary parker with an overtime ticket.
The answer, according to the parking office, is simple. All city meters on the streets run the standard 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The difference comes in metered or permit spaces on property owned by the university.
These would include parking structures 1, 2 and 3, Shattuck Hall parking at S.W. Broadway and College Street, and the carpool parking lot at S.W. Fifth Avenue and Harrison Street.
At these college-owned locations, meters must be fed from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and until 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. So, they exceed the city’s meters four days a week and run on shorter hours two days a week.
The reason, according to parking office policy, is that Monday through Thursday many classes run until 7 p.m. The 7 p.m. extension is designed for the protection of student parking. If the meters went off at 6 p.m., the general public would swarm in and eat up the parking spaces.
Why does the university charge for parking at all? The answer lies in economics. The parking function must be self-supporting, it does not get funding from the state.
Fitness for a fee
If there is one area where fees lurk omnipresent, it is the Peter Stott Center, the building formerly called the Physical Education Plant. Here, too, the facility is required to be self-supporting, says Keith Mettie, building manager.
Mettie said the locker fee was imposed about a decade ago, starting at about $10. Those wanting a permanent locker may pay $17 a term for a full-length locker or $12 for a half-sized locker.
The Stott Center used to be an academic facility, the home of the School of Health and Physical Education. When that school was abolished, it was thrown onto self-support. Renting out various facilities, including the all-weather practice field, helps pay to support the facility.
Students sometimes complain about the $41 fee assessed for any instruction course offered at Stott Center. Randy Miller, director of service course programs for the School of Community Health, said, “We cover the cost of our instructional program. We get no tuition dollars.”
The fees cover all labor costs, services and supply costs for such amenities as the circuit training room, weight rooms, even wrestling mats.
“We’re very much a beast of self-support,” he said. Even with the fee, courses are popular, with an estimated 7,000 students taking part every term. Especially popular, with classes up to 100 students, are yoga, hip-hop and cardio kickboxing.
Education doesn’t come cheap
The newest idea in fees, instituted primarily last fall after the May 2002 drastic budget cuts, is the study resource fee. The School of Fine and Performing Arts now assesses a fee of $5 per credit hour per term, up to a maximum of $50 a term. The fee affects architecture, art, music and theater arts students. These departments also assess a variety of usage fees for key deposits, studio use, materials, practice rooms and individual instruction. Amounts can range from $6 to $50.
The study resource fees also affect the School of Business Administration and the College of Engineering and Computer Science. In business administration, the fee for undergraduates is $5 per credit hour, for a maximum of $50 a term. In engineering, the fee is $17 a credit hour, for a maximum per term of $170.
In business administration, the fee was instituted four years ago as a means to support the business administration computer labs. Tracy Weber, assistant to Dean Scott Dawson, said the money is needed to pay for paper, software and salaries.
“The computer labs were just sucking up the money,” Weber said.
Engineering presents a larger magnitude of expenses, as outlined by Ron Geason, chief operating officer for the college.
“The resources are used primarily to fund the school’s computer support division. We’ve had it in place for several years.”
He said engineering has been able to improve its computer labs substantially because of the fee.
“It is designed to provide special support in areas that directly benefit students,” he said. “By its nature, engineering programs are expensive. All PSU students pay some tuition, and the study resource fee is a way to recapture the high cost of an engineering education.”
Engineering has some fees up to $1,010, but Geason said these are special fees, usually for courses done by part-time students, and are charged in lieu of, and are about equal to, regular tuition.
An oddity in fees occurs in the mathematics department. Its most basic courses, elementary and intermediate algebra, are the only courses that charge a fee, a sizable $312. The math department has a ready answer. The two courses are not properly college-level credit courses. Entering students should have covered this ground earlier. As a result, the courses are covered in the School of Extended Studies, which charges its own tuition fees. In the case of students on financial aid, the course fees are taken out of tuition allowances.
Cliff Barnett, office specialist at the Writing Center, was startled last fall to discover that students taking freshman inquiry were paying a $15 fee to help support the center. The facility, which offers writing help by volunteers, has traditionally been a free service to all.
Terrel Rhodes, vice provost for curriculum and undergraduate studies, explained the decision to impose the fee. He said when the big budget cuts occurred last May, he conferred with Marvin Kaiser, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, about how best to meet the shortfall. They decided to install the fee for freshman inquiry.
“We were looking for places to cut and how we might be best able to support the writing center,” Rhodes said. It was decided that although all university studies classes are writing intensive, the freshman inquiry tends to be especially writing concentrated. Also, freshmen get in-class training from the center and the practicum.
“It’s not a fee for using the center,” Rhodes said. “It’s a fee to support it.”
Barnett said in his experience freshmen who drop into the center for tutoring comprise perhaps 25 percent of the total clientele of the center.
Rhodes sees another perspective affecting taxpayer support of public education.
“There is an unquestioned value to the entire society in having an educated populace,” he said. In his view, both economic and intellectual success are associated with an educated society.
“As the state general fund decreases, the costs shift to the users and that’s the way many would like to have it,” he said.
He sees an impending choice between funding education or paying for more prisons and more police.
He said the university up to the level of President Daniel Bernstine is looking for all avenues to increase funding so tuition and fees can be held lower.
Rhodes’ position was echoed in another office by Harold Gray, chair of the department of music. He regrets the $5 fee but says, “We wouldn’t have money for our required programs without it.” He would like to install a recording facility for students.
“Maybe we will be able to do it by spring term, but without the fee, we couldn’t do it at all.”
Following Rhodes’ thoughts, Gray asked, “Are we building jails or are we supporting education?”