Tuition increases tend to get the most focus in discussions about college affordability, but a number of other factors also affect the total price tag of a college education. In addition to researching living allowances for off-campus students, I have looked into the often-confusing world of student fees at public colleges. These fees are used for a variety of purposes, such as supporting core instructional activities, funding athletics, paying for student activities, or even seismic safety. The University of California-Santa Cruz lists over 30 mandatory fees that all undergraduates must pay, ranging from $.75 per year to fund a marine discovery center to $1,020 per year for student services. At the typical four-year public college, student fees were nearly $1,300 in the 2012-13 academic year, roughly 20% of median tuition and nearly double their 1999-2000 rate after adjusting for inflation.
In a new article that was just published in The Review of Higher Education, I used a panel regression framework to explore potential institution-level and state-level factors affecting student fee levels between the 2001-02 and 2012-13 academic years. For institution-level factors, I included tuition, the percent of nonresident students, measures of selectivity, and per-student athletics expenditures (a proxy for the magnitude of a college’s athletics program). For state-level factors, I considered appropriations and financial aid levels, economic conditions, whether a tuition or fee cap was in place, who had the ability to set tuition or fees (politicians, state or system boards, or the individual college), and partisan political control in the state.
Given that students subsidized athletics at public colleges to the tune of at least $10 billion over five years, I fully expected to find that higher per-student athletics expenditures would be associated with higher student fees. Yet after controlling for other factors, there was no significant relationship between athletics spending and fees. This could be explained by the small number of high-spending colleges in big-time conferences that come close to breaking even on athletics, or it could be due to my data ending in 2012-13 and larger increases in athletics fees occurring since then. The only significant institution-level factor was tuition—as tuition rose, fees fell. This implies that some colleges likely treat tuition and fees as interchangeable.
More of the state-level factors have statistically significant relationships with student fee levels. States that have capped fee levels do have fees about $128 lower than states without fee caps, but I also found evidence that colleges in states with tuition caps have fees $59 higher. This suggests that colleges will substitute fees for tuition where possible. If a state’s governor and/or legislature can set tuition, fees tend to be lower, but if policymakers can set fees, fees tend to be higher. Finally, partisan political control only has a small relationship with fees, as having a Republican governor is associated with slightly lower fee levels and control of the legislature was not significant.
Given the magnitude of student fees and the relatively small body of research in this area, I hope to see more studies (particularly qualitative in nature) digging into how student fees are set and how the money is supposed to be used compared to its actual uses.