Utah’s public colleges are charging fees for services that many students never use, audit says

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An empty University of Utah campus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, during spring break.

Utah’s public colleges are frequently charging fees for services that students don’t use — and increases get approved each year with little or no input from those expected to pay them, according to a state audit released Tuesday.

The University of Utah, for instance, charges a $3 fee each semester to support the program to study abroad, regardless of whether students participate or not. And Utah State University requires $32.69 per semester to access the library, which the state says should already be covered by tuition.

“These just don’t seem to meet the smell test,” said State Auditor John Dougall.

The new report from his office calls on the state’s eight public institutions to reexamine what fees are actually necessary for all students to pay and what ones could be eliminated. And, it says, the Utah System of Higher Education board that oversees those schools should no longer “rubber stamp” the increases they propose each year without first hearing how raising the price could impact students.

“We hope that our audit will also help facilitate a discussion about the true cost of attending college,” Dougall added, noting he launched the investigation after hearing complaints. “I know many students and parents express concern that they pay tuition and then find out at that time there’s hundreds of dollars in fees on top of that.”

The review also points to two previous audits on the topic — in 2011 and 2018 — that made similar recommendations, which the auditors say were ignored and led to the issue getting worse in the most recent review. The situation is similar to what’s been happening with fees in K-12 schools in the state, which were audited two years ago.

This new audit largely looks at the U. and USU, calling the schools a “reasonable representation” of others in the state. It examines fees charged between July 2017 and July 2019.

At the U., students pay more than $1,000 each year in fees (on top of $8,400 in annual tuition). Among those charges, the auditors specifically call out the Learning Abroad fee. Few students, they say, participate in the program, but the school uses the money to “offset the costs for the limited number” who do. Likewise, everyone pays a building fee of $119.24 that goes partially to the dorms, though not every student lives on campus.

Those fees provide no benefit to a majority of those who pay them, Dougall said, but never use the services.

“Students should receive a direct benefit for each fee they pay,” he added; and if they can’t, similar to colleges shutting down this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, they should be refunded.

The audit also questions the U.‘s utility fee, which is $10 per semester. It’s supposed to cover the costs of heating, electricity and sewer, according to the school’s website. But it’s charged whether students take classes in-person or online, where they wouldn’t actually be using the buildings.

The state says students shouldn’t be charged for that, and the money should instead come out of the school’s general fund, made up of tuition dollars that can be spent more broadly.

Meanwhile, at USU, the auditors say the library fee is excessive and ends up subsidizing the costs of resources for nonstudents, too.

The school’s spokeswoman challenged that in a statement Tuesday, saying the money is used “primarily” for purchasing databases only accessible by students and staff who requested them. But, she said, USU will still “review its current policies regarding general student fees.”

The U. similarly said it would reexamine its fees, too, and already does so each year with input from its student government. Last year, for instance, spokesman Chris Nelson said, student leaders decided to reallocate more money for mental health services on campus. The Learning Abroad fee, too, originally came from them in 2009 and was intended to get more students to participate.

“But it’s always helpful to have an outside set of eyes looking at this,” he added. “You have to revisit these fees regularly.”

Part of the problem, though, according to the state auditors, is that there’s little oversight of fees — even with the system set up specifically to provide it.

The Utah System of Higher Education, they say, has never set a definition for fees or created parameters for what’s reasonable. And the board members also do little, the audits notes, to scrutinize each college’s proposal for fee increases, which they have the authority to approve each spring.

Instead, Dougall suggests, there’s “lax oversight” and hikes are given the green light without any review or student input and with minimal discussion. (The same was previously said about tuition increases in a separate audit on the higher education system in the state from 2018).

Over the last 10 years, the U. has been allowed to increase fees by an average of 5% each year, the audit says. And USU has gone even higher — with an average of 5.9% — to where fees are now $1,128 annually on top of $6,731 in tuition. The two schools have the highest fees of the eight public colleges in the state.

“We found no indication that the [Utah System of Higher Education] had ever rejected a proposed fee increase,” the audit states.

Additionally, each year a school is supposed to hold what’s called a public “Truth-in-Tuition” meeting where students can learn about the proposed hikes to tuition and fees and offer feedback before they move forward to the higher education board. The audit says those haven’t been held according to the law in recent years.

At the U. last year, the school’s board of trustees approved the tuition hike a week before its scheduled tuition hearing with students. “Trustees could not have weighed input from students they had not yet received,” the audit notes.

USU, meanwhile, it says, didn’t advertise its meeting to the public as required.

Few students at both schools were asked what they thought of the increases to fees. And, as such, the Utah System of Higher Education never got any input from those impacted or who don’t actually use the services.

The U. and USU, though, say they have made adjustments since. And the Utah System of Higher Education outlined in a letter the steps it will take to address each problem from the audit. A spokesman for the system declined to comment beyond that document.

The system will now look at separating the process for discussing proposals for fee increases, which are usually done alongside tuition hikes each spring. That way, board members will have more time to discuss each topic and won’t rush to approve either.

The Utah System of Higher Education also promises to do spot audits on fees at the different colleges throughout the state to ensure they are “reasonable” — which it will also draft a set of guidelines to define. The previous audit in 2011 had asked the board to do this already, but Dougall said it appears to have fallen through the cracks as members were replaced.

Most important, though, the system says it will now require a student representative at each school to attend the Truth-in-Tuition hearing and report back to the board on what their peers think of the proposed fee increases. The auditors also recommend creating a fee board at each school made up of students that would provide input, too.

Those boards would reexamine each fee to see how many students use the service tied to it, for instance, an on-campus gym or counseling services. Any fees that don’t provide a benefit to the student, Dougall added, should be eliminated.