The Battle Over Student Fees

The stage is now set for wide debate over mandatory student fees These are the fees that educational institutions or student governments assess students above and beyond the monies that pertain to tuition, housing, dining, and similar goods. Some of these additional fees typically fund extracurricular activities or needs such as medical services, crime victim services, transportation services, and the like. The more controversial fees cover students’ expressive and associational activities.
At my school, the University of Wisconsin at Madison—a hotbed of such activity that is a model for other schools—mandatory fees currently amount to about $750 per semester. After an activist group abolished student government here in the early 1990s, students organized to establish a new form of student government in 1994-5, primarily to enable activist groups to gain access to student fees.
Objections to fees that support student expressive groups take three tracks.

First, some students think it violates their freedom of conscience to be forced to pay money to support groups who stand for things that these students oppose. In First Amendment law, this is called “compelled association.” But in a 2000 case involving the Madison campus’s student government, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that compelled association is not at issue so long as the money is distributed to groups in a viewpoint neutral fashion. The Court said that students in these systems are being required to fund the viewpoint neutral forum, not any particular group per se.
Since this decision (Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth), student governments at Madison and elsewhere have been obligated to honor the viewpoint neutrality standard. But the Court provided no guidelines on what constitutes viewpoint neutrality or discrimination, and claims of discrimination have surfaced on many campuses. Should all groups get the same amounts of money, or should such factors as membership, longevity, or “importance” make a difference? Given the openness and vagueness of standards, funding authorities have a lot of discretion, which can camouflage prejudice and favoritism. And such authorities can also draw on a host of technicalities to support a decision.
At Wisconsin, for example, CFACT, a conservative public interest group, was denied funding in 2005, while WISPIRG, a liberal public interest group, received ample funding. After complaints of discrimination gained public attention, the student government reversed its decision. A similar problem involving public interest groups arose at the University of Albany in 2004.
Meanwhile, religious groups whose beliefs are opposed to aspects of homosexuality have been denied funding at several institutions, including Harvard University and the University of Southern Illinois. As we speak, a student group is suing Wayne State University for denying the group funding because of its religious nature; and the Roman Catholic Foundation at Wisconsin (to which I once served as faculty adviser) had to struggle for years to get funding, which the university denied on anti-establishment grounds and a host of technicalities. Last year the Foundation finally received a great deal of funding, but no decision has been reached for this year, according to the student government’s web page.
So while Southworth no doubt helped to make viewpoint neutrality more prevalent, the complexity and vagueness of funding standards and processes leave the door open to a lot of unguided discretion
The second objection to mandatory fees is more straightforward. Many students (and non-students) resent the sheer amounts of money that some groups receive at some schools. At Madison, some groups—including groups that are political in nature, but officially non-partisan—receive large amounts. Some examples from last year from a longer list: Campus Women’s Center, $83,000; MEChA, $57,000; LGBT Campus Center, $114,000; Multi-Cultural Student Coalition, $379,000; Sex Out Loud, $88,000; CFACT (a conservative public interest group), $172,00; WISPIRG (a liberal public interest group), $126,000; Roman Catholic Foundation, $288,000. These amounts are among the largest in the country. Critics wonder why so much money is needed to promote the kind of activities that officially justify mandatory student fee regimes: the engagement in expressive and associational activities that contribute to the intellectual environments and diversity of their campuses.
The third objection or concern relates to the problem of partisan politics: how this money is actually used by various groups around the country. The student government at Madison, for example, does not fund overtly partisan groups, such as the College Democrats or the College Republicans. But some of the listed groups above have beliefs that clearly dovetail with particular partisan positions.
Two empirical questions arise in this context. First, do recipients use the funds they receive to promote particular candidates or partisan causes? Second, does the use of such money have this effect more indirectly? If the latter, no problem arises because all sorts of appropriate activities have such indirect effects. But if the former situation prevails, that would pose a real problem: mandatory student fees used directly to influence electoral results.
As I stressed above, I know of no evidence that indicates such abuse of mandatory fees. Empirical inquiry is called for to ascertain what is actually going on in the trenches of student organization politics. And more formal supervision is needed to ensure that such abuse does not occur. Such supervision is needed because, as I remark above, political motivation is intense, and where large amounts of money exist to be spent, temptation is often just around the corner. Perhaps the best solution would be to to make fees supporting student expressive groups voluntary rather than mandatory. But few institutions have the gumption to consider this principled alternative that would remedy both the lingering compelled association problem and the problem of potential political abuse.


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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One thought on “The Battle Over Student Fees”

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