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Utah audit: Why should all college students pay study abroad fee? Library fee?

Some university fees don’t meet ‘reasonable test,’ auditor says

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Some student fees assessed by Utah’s public college and universities don’t meet the “reasonable test.”

That’s the conclusion of a new audit released Tuesday by the office of Utah State Auditor John Dougall.

Dougall called on state institutions and the newly constituted Utah Board of Higher Education to reevaluate mandatory fees to determine whether they are reasonable.

“Fees that fail to meet this test should be eliminated. Students should receive a direct benefit for each fee they pay. Also, students should receive a partial refund of those fees for services they were unable to access during the COVID-19 closures,” Dougall said in a statement.

The audit singled out fees assessed by the state’s research universities, the University of Utah and Utah State University.

According to the audit, the U. charges all students a study abroad fee regardless of whether they participate in the program.

“The University of Utah uses that revenue to offset the costs for the limited number of students who participate in the study abroad program. While all students pay the fee, very few students participate in the program. As such, the study abroad fee fails to meet the reasonable fee test because it fails to provide proportional benefit to the fee payers,” the audit says.

University of Utah spokesman Christopher Nelson said the study abroad fee was initiated by students in 2009 to broaden access to the program. Revenue from this fee is used for scholarships to enable students to study abroad.

“Every matriculated University of Utah student who participates on a learning abroad program is eligible for this scholarship. The selection of scholarship recipients is a random, lottery-based procedure, and the likelihood of receiving a Student Fee Learning Abroad Scholarship is typically 25%-30%,” according to the U.’s Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis.

Nelson said there is an annual review of fees on campus and occasionally changes are made. Last year, students opted to reallocate funding from the student publications fees to fund mental health services on campus.

“The benefit of an audit like this is that it reminds USHE (the Utah System of Higher Education) and the university, ‘Let’s reevaluate these fees. Is it accomplishing its purpose?’” Nelson said.

The U. also charges all students a utility fee, which does not meet the “reasonable fee test” either, the audit states.

“It is reasonable to assume education-related utility costs would be paid from the U.’s general fund and a separate student fee should not be imposed,” according to the audit.

Nelson said the university strives to keep its fees and tuition as low as possible but “there are expenses to run the University of Utah.” If there wasn’t a utility fee, the costs would likely be shifted to tuition. “The benefit of fees is, there’s just a lot of transparency on that,” he said.

The audit also takes issue with Utah State University’s library fee, which is assessed to all students.

“USU uses the funds to subsidize the cost of library resources, including for nonstudents. It is reasonable to assume education related library costs would be paid from the USU’s general fund as part of tuition that USU imposes,” the audit states.

USU spokeswoman Emilie Wheeler said library fees are primarily used to purchase licensed databases only accessible by USU students and employees.

“Last year, student fees were directed toward services students have requested, including open education resources, materials and technology,” Wheeler said.

With respect to the audit in general, USU, in concert with the Utah System of Higher Education, “will review its current policies regarding general student fees and consider how to better define student fees and when to administer them,” she said.

Not only does the audit question the reasonableness of fees, it questions the processes by which fees are assessed, concluding that Utah System of Higher Education institutions “fail to comply with fee-setting policy” such as public notice of meetings or keeping minutes of such meetings.

Moreover, the system’s truth-in-tuition process fails to provide expected transparency and accountability and fee boards at colleges and universities likewise “lack transparency,” according to the audit’s findings.

For instance, USU’s fee board keeps detailed minutes and records audio of its meetings. But auditors also determined that the University of Utah’s fee board “does not keep agendas, minutes or record its meetings.”

Neither USU nor the U. publishes the membership of the boards nor provides contact information for them. In addition, neither institution notifies the public when they hold fee board meetings, it says.

While the audit acknowledges mandatory fees are discussed in public college and university trustee meetings, during truth-in-tuition meetings and in regents meetings, the “discussions appear to rely heavily on the recommendations of the fee boards. As a result, the regents allow most of the meaningful deliberation to effectively occur ‘behind closed doors,’ which limits student and public participation,” the audit states.

The Utah System of Higher Education’s written response to the audit notes at least one regent has attended institution truth-in-tuition hearings the past two years.

“As has always been the case, the institution truth-in-tuition hearings, institution board of trustees meetings and board of regents meetings are open public meetings in which students, parents and other interested individuals can hear deliberations and comment on proposed fee modifications,” the response said in part.

“The regents will amend policy to require that student fee boards provide a meaningful documented report on the fee board’s deliberations and recommendations to the board of trustees in a public meeting.”