Journalism in the Public Interest

Course Load: The Growing Burden of College Fees

Students and parents are learning their college fates this week and then having to address whether schools are actually affordable. They have their work cut out for them as college fees, often well-disguised, continue to explode.

A student walks near Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA in April 2012. Students and parents are learning their college fates this week and then having to address whether schools are actually affordable. They have their work cut out for them as college fees, often well-disguised, continue to explode. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

At the University of California Santa Cruz, where tuition runs to nearly $35,000 for non-residents, students every year pay more than 30 additional fees — including a small charge for what's billed as "free" HIV testing. Students at Oklahoma State University pay a handsome sum to attend one of the state's flagship schools, but they are also responsible for covering 18 different fees, including a "life safety and security fee."

The $100 "globalization fee" at Howard University is listed — without explanation — in the school's tuition and fees brochure. A school spokeswoman said the fee "supports internationalization initiatives" such as study abroad. Students pay the fee even if they have no intention of studying abroad themselves.

Worcester State University in Massachusetts, however, might have one of the most arresting fees. Students fortunate enough to be admitted face the challenge of paying the required tuition. But before they step foot on campus, they also will be hit with a fee to, well, step foot on campus. A portion of the school's "parking/pedestrian fee" goes to the upkeep of the sidewalks on campus.

Student fees have been something of a known irritant for years, often criticized as a kind of stealth, second tuition imposed on unsuspecting families. But such fees are still on the rise on many campuses. And though their names can border on the comical — i.e., the "student success fee" — there's nothing funny about how they can add up.

"It's a way for colleges to increase the cost that may not be as apparent to as many students," said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and the founder of and "You focus in on tuition and when you get the bursar's bill, there are lots of little lines for all these fees, but because each is a relatively small amount, you may not notice it as much. You focus in on the big figure but not on these little figures that collectively add up to a lot."

This week, anxious high school seniors will be opening letters and emails of acceptance or rejection. For them, there will be a mix of joy and disappointment. But for those students and their parents, there will also be an initial reckoning with the expensive, often opaque issue of college fees.

Lauren Vaughn, a senior at UMass Amherst, is also an organizer for the UMass Students Against Debt coalition. She said appreciating the collective cost of additional school fees is often critical to determining whether any particular school is, in fact, affordable.

"It does seem as though we are not informed about these fees often until it is too late," Vaughn said, noting that such fees "can be the thing that puts some students who are financially strained over the edge."

The federal government has made efforts in recent years to make true college costs more transparent. U.S. Department of Education data shows that in more than half the states across the country, degree-granting institutions reported that fees comprised a greater portion of combined tuition and fees in the 2010-2011 school year than they had in 2008-2009.

But fees for specific programs and courses typically get left out of that data. The same goes for fees that apply to specific pockets of students, such as honors students or international students.

Many school officials say they do their best to make sure the necessary information about tuition and fees is clear to students and their parents. But there's no one definition that schools stick to when deciding what's covered by tuition and what falls under fees, and the very structuring of tuition and fees can vary wildly between different schools.

"It's all smoke and mirrors in some ways, the issue of tuition and fees," said Terry Meyers, a professor of English at the College of William and Mary. "It seems to be one area of the academic world where no one is looking and no one wants to look too closely."

To best appreciate how confusing — even upside-down — the world of college costs can get, consider this: At state schools in Massachusetts, where the state board of higher education has held tuition flat for more than a decade, "mandatory fees" wind up far outstripping the price of tuition. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the flagship of the UMass system, mandatory fees are more than six times the cost of in-state tuition.

And that isn't the end of it: Students are then hit with still more charges — the $300 "freshman counseling fee," the $185 "undergraduate entering" fee, and several hundred dollars more if your parents or siblings attend freshman orientation. Honors college and engineering students face still more fees.

A number of forces are driving fees upward. For public institutions, declining state support has left many schools scrambling to find other types of revenue. As well, since the notion of straightforward tuition hikes is often politically toxic, there is considerable appeal to using fees to make up shortfalls.

But it has all required ever-greater attempts at creativity. In the last few years, a number of public colleges across the country have added fees with vaguely pleasant names — "academic excellence and success fees," or "student enhancement fees," for instance.

Some school officials admit openly that these fees aren't all that different from tuition.

Since 2009, students at Georgia's public colleges have been paying hundreds of dollars a year in what are called "special institutional fees," separate from tuition. The fees vary, depending on the campus; at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which charges the most, they now top $1,000 a year. All of it goes straight into schools' general funds.

"The special institutional fee goes to the exact same things your tuition goes to," said John Millsaps, spokesman for the state Board of Regents.

The charges are simply called "fees" instead of "tuition," he said, because at a time when the state slashed funding, several classes of entering students had already been promised that their tuition would be locked in at the same rate as part of a "guaranteed tuition plan." Calling any increase "tuition" would break that promise. The intent was also that the fee would be temporary, Millsaps said. Instead, the fees have grown on every campus.

College administrators also acknowledge that sometimes a "fee" is easier for students to stomach than a "tuition" increase — even if the difference is more about semantics than substance.

"Unfortunately, the word tuition is a little bit of a lightning rod these days," said Colette Sheehy, vice president for management and budget at the University of Virginia. "And not just here, but in other places as well."

This year, the university began imposing two new charges on students taking engineering courses or enrolled in the nursing school in order to better reflect the higher costs of running those programs. But rather than take the step of raising tuition on certain students, the school opted to implement the new charges as fees, as many other schools have already done. For an engineering major, the new fee typically adds up to an extra $750 per year, Sheehy said.

Within the 23-campus California State University system, six schools have adopted some form of what's called a "student success fee" since the beginning of 2011. The annual fees, which different campuses have been using to cover a broad array of things from technology to mentoring programs to athletics, range from as little as $162 to as much as $430 a year depending on the school.

At Auburn University in Alabama, mandatory fees have been steadily increasing for several years. They now make up 16 percent of an in-state student's combined tuition and fee costs. Part of this increase stems from self-imposed fees that students voted for because they wanted a new recreation center, said Mike Reynolds, executive director of student financial services.

But a major component of the increase is Auburn's new $400 "proration fee," also introduced in 2011 to make up for a loss of state support. Reynolds said the charge was labeled a fee because it was intended to be temporary.

"That fee could go away. Whether that will happen, I don't know," Reynolds said.

Critics suggest that some schools likely keep their fee costs fuzzy as a way of seeming more financially attractive to prospective students. But if students are still paying for the additional costs in the end, any marginal marketing benefit on the front end may engender bad feelings after the bill arrives.

"It is hard not to feel a little misled," said one parent of a student at UMass Amherst who did not want to be quoted by name. "Yes, they are on the web somewhere, but they are not always easy to find. Unless you dig out the list and closely analyze it, you don't realize there are all these extra expenses. Schools don't go out of their way to publicize it."

School spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said in an email that the school makes an effort to be clear about total costs.

"In publications and [on] our website, extensive details about the tuition, fees and the estimated overall cost of attendance are shared with students in advance," Blaguszewski said. "Our Admissions and Financial Aid staff believe prospective students are well informed about cost, and the info is publicly posted."

Curtis R Anderson

March 29, 2013, 2:19 p.m.

Years ago at a large public university, a group of us wondered when that university would charge a “breathing fee”.

Ms. Wang, I would think that, if you are opening your article discussing student fees at UC Santa Cruz, you might look into what those fees consisted of, how they got onto student bills in the first place and how much they amount to. As with some of your other examples, you might even have considered speaking with and quoting someone at UC Santa Cruz.

Had you done so, you might have learned that students voted for many of these fees. You might have learned that our students voted to charge themselves extra fees so that our libraries could stay open longer, a charge that will disappear now that the state budget has stabilized somewhat. You might have learned that students voted for a fee dedicated to reducing the campus’s carbon footprint. In effect, our students have used these fees to demonstrate leadership on issues they care very much about. (You would also have learned that a third of the fees amount to less than $10 per year per student).

As a faculty member at UC Santa Cruz and the father of a college student, I know as well as anyone how expensive college has become. But this kind of reporting merely skims the surface and omits too much context to be of much use.

Daniel Press,  Professor of Environmental Studies and Executive Director, Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, UC Santa Cruz

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for your comment. I did in fact contact someone at Santa Cruz and get information on the fees, and you are absolutely correct to note that sometimes students self-impose fees.

This story doesn’t fail to make this point, though it may not be as high in the story as you would like. If readers are interested, here are more details on the fees that UC SC have imposed over the years—many were first enacted decades ago:


Thanks for providing that link, Marian!



Bill Kittredge

March 30, 2013, 1:56 a.m.

Like the DoD hiding its long-term medical costs off their books in the Veterans’ Administration and states, counties, and cities issuing ‘non-debt’ debt to cover deficits, universities have for many years kept tuition costs under actual costs of attending by adding fees.  When I was on faculty at UGA, new fees were introduced, including a library fee, student activity fee, and computer lab fee to cover costs formerly included in tuition.  Therefore, the University President could claim that tuition hadn’t risen.  Of course, the problem is that if you lie to everyone else, and this is a deliberate falsehood, you risk beginning to believe it yourself.

Isn’t it interesting that government pursues legislation to require fell disclosure of private enterprises fees and charges and yet seems unable to do the same with its own enterprises…

Whether it be schools, banks, governments, employers, etc., the notorious “fee” is a subtle, tricky - yet extremely effective - way to extract money out of people without making that extraction look aggressively direct. However, in the grand scheme of things the accumulation of these “fees” often adds up to big bucks - especially for those who are walking the tightrope of financial security to begin with (and who are, unfortunately, the usual targets of these fees).


Consumer spending drives the American economy. But this very premise is revolves around debt creation.

Consumption is moderated by inflationary pressures.
Inflation has been tame in recent months. However, the one thing we can be certain about is this: Increases in inflation will have a painful effect on lower income households, those on fixed incomes, those with higher ratios of transportation costs, college tuition and any household whose discretionary spending is more dream than reality.

Financial sectors have driven capitalism over the edge, where Adam Smith would call out the very visible hand of greed. We imagine that inflationary forces are not impacting Americans because we define the consumer price index in ways that discredit the true costs of surviving a paternalistic society, where competition drives decision-making.

As such, outsourcing “low skilled” work to countries where goods can be made cheaply deludes us into believing inflation is controlled.

Ironically, energy, medical and education costs are consuming the American family. As such, we are well on the road to disaster capitalism, where societal breakdown drives the GDP and concentrates wealth in fewer hands.

Since competition = power + money, it is inevitable that higher education and health care are increasingly unavailable to the commons. These commodities have been a tough nut to crack because it’s more difficult to devalue these white collar professions, while still assuring the elite have access to quality healthcare and education.

Claiming “personalized” education or health care, these commodities are increasingly becoming the domain of the virtual world, where robotics and software will increasingly replace relationships (teachers and doctors) to devalue the professions and increase the return on investment for the financial sectors.

That’s why we need complementary currencies. See “Rethinking Money” by Lietaer and Dunne

I think this fee based model, imposed by colleges and universities, is unsustainable in the long-term. These are short-term gains, to off set the loss of traditional funding (public and private monies) that will further the chasm of the wealthy from the middle/lower classes (no pun intended).

Brianna Alvarez

March 30, 2013, 4:06 p.m.

Thank you for writing this article. One of the things universities seem to fail to notice is how in the long-term these fee increases will eventually cost them lots of funding. Many universities cover up to half of their operating expenses through money donated by alumni. As the cost of education continues to increase, the amount of college grads with substantial student loan debt will, as well. Inevitably these alumni will be too overwhelmed with debt to have any excess money to donate to their alma mater. I am in my fourth year of undergrad, and I have started to get letters about how I can “take the first step in giving back to my university today.” Ironically enough, the first one came on the same day as a letter from Nelnet with my loan statement and I was half-tempted to fill out my alumni pledge card with “$ -40,897” and enclose the statement.

If you don’t want to pay your taxes, then it’s every man for himself and that gets expensive. Your choice.

The fees at some state schools in Florida essentially double the tuition, which is very low cost for many students under Bright Futures.
The fee structure is a lame trick that insults the intelligence of both students and parents.
The multi-layered administration is what this is paying for. At campuses large and small there are vice presidents, associate provosts, assistant deans, chancellors and dept. heads. Many more than are needed, featherbedded up the wazoo. Most making six-figure salaries.
And these young students will be paying for them into middle age, with the loan burdern.
It’s a scandal. Keep on thr story, propublica.

“If you don’t want to pay your taxes, then it’s every man for himself and that gets expensive. Your choice.”

Government sounds just like the mobster that comes into your business “suggesting” you pay them protection money or else something bad might happen…

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

March 31, 2013, 9:03 a.m.

In our country, there is no excuse for us not to educate any young person into their chosen field. We have been the most wasteful nation in the existance of mankind, and the most regulated.

We have three kids taking courses now, but only one away from home.

Education seems to have become a profit making concern, to justify the end result. With huge contracts for coverage of sporting events, tuition should be free, instate. Reguardless of course of study.

Auburn University is the land grant university of Alabama, and Alabama is not a poor state. Constant building and expanding of Alabama campuses lead us to believe there is no fiscal crisis in the nation whatsoever.

Of course I am of the opinion that teachers K-12 should be among the highest paid people in our society. Not some proffessor that couldn’t teach a dog to eat.

Free for somebody…

Bill Kittredge

April 1, 2013, 6 a.m.

One item of note, universities lobbied for, and received, an exemption from federal grant regulations that require itemized accounting for grant expenditures.  In my over 6 years as a federal grant officer, I personally witnessed universities draw grants to the last penny, even when the grant specifically included conditions concerning the exact nature and extent of the variable costs (e.g. costs like the electric bill which can only be estimated rather than rent, which is contractually equal across the period). Since it is impossible to hit the variable cost estimate to the penny every time, I questioned these expenditures without success, and under Congressional pressure, stopped asking.  Just one more example of universities trying to cover up the actual expenditures and their purposes.

While obvious, two points should be stressed.  Students can avoid these costs by making use of their local community college for the first year or so of their education.  They will find the same courses taught with the same thoroughness they would find elsewhere and of course the credits are transferable.  Second, many students attend big name universities in the belief they will be receiving a better education than they would at lesser-known schools.  After a lifetime in all levels of the field, I must point out their education is almost entirely one of their own making and not a product of the institution.

I don’t have much productive, here (other than wondering how useful this is, since at private colleges, we’re still only talking about a percent or two of tuition), but I do have at least a mildly amusing story.

When I was in college, I was in a recently launched, semi-special program that amounted to a dual degree kind of thing, more or less.  Due to programming on the mainframe that made a lot of assumptions (like one degree per student), the system started charging me a “Student Activity Fee” every time someone looked at my account.

I happened to work with Student Accounts, so someone checked to clear it out periodically on my behalf, but it was entertaining to try to track the source, since there was never any guarantee as to how many fees would be racked up in my account at any given time.

Eventually, I spent a weekend helping one of the Student Records guys debug their code, so it was solved before any of the other students in my situation found out.  But to this day, those departments still joke about the “Hyperactivities Fee.”

Well, I thought it was funny.  Sadly, not even exaggerated.

Anyway, I suspect this is just another sign that the dominoes are about to fall throughout higher education.  The public schools are going to see funding cut in cries for austerity, and the private schools are too focused on image (hiring executives at a quarter-million a pop and borrowing millions to build enormous complexes), meaning that fewer kids will be able to attend either.  That means costs will continue to go up, and eventually start driving schools out of business.

Accelerating this will be kids who realize in high school that they can get a quality education on their own, by connecting with like-minded people on the Internet with more experience and building the tools they need (PCR machines, drones, software, 3D printers, etc.—almost anything they might need) for less than the cost of one credit.

I imagine that the schools that are left are either going to be “boutiques” with high-end names (Yale) or specialize in a career path where there’s a strong bias toward formal credentials (finance and medicine).  Jacking up tuitions, piling on fees, and screwing up finances with easy loans are only going to get us to the endgame faster.

John, those last three paragraphs are extremely productive… a nod to the blacksmith, wheelwright and cooper of days gone forever.

I expect the startup companies realize this already and hire accordingly while the large legacy companies still hire more for the school name on the degree than the employee named on the degree.

Bill, you sound like those years spent on the UGA staff were spent partly in torensic and cost accounting. My kind of people, though historically not always interesting. I digress. Go Dawgs!

Last year I decided to get a degree of use in the real world (same topic in a different scope, with its own set of nightmares). This masters in forensic accounting required 2 years of studies in addition to the Master’s cohort. Made sense, don’t want some idiot with a basic understanding in Math auditing a company’s books.

Understood. But my program didn’t really have lab fees or anything, just a tech fee and a subscription to the WSJ. I really had only one issue with those school fees. The campus security fee apportioned a large part to on campus resident security. I wasn’t an on campus resident!

That folks, is cost accounting at its finest. Appropriate the same from everyone and triple the profit. Most of the university costs are fixed: they don’t pay teachers per student, and staffing needs can be adjusted to increase revenue. Just ask any adjunct part time professor who isn’t published in multiple trade/scholarly journals. Or who isn’t tied to a laboratory with deep pockets or some part time politician.

Newt Gingrich taught at my Alma Mater. Great way to pad the resume and make yourself more approachable. Machiavelli would have been proud.

That’s what my primary degree allows me to do: make useless literary connections and impress at parties. Not as many higher end positions there.

As for the fees, the forensic accountant in me thinks this smells fishy. We discussed this very same topic in our fraud class, and finally had to stop. Twenty seniors shouting their opinions at each other. Good times

A bit esoteric, I know. But I didn’t know the plight of the modern student until I was one. And when that student loan money runs out, hope you’ve got a backup plan.

But the Pirates of Pedagogy leave us no choice. And it just gets more unbearable as the years pass.

What is really bad about fees is that those that are sleepers and not signaled well in advance is that these are frequently paid with credit cards on a regular purchase or APR basis, as opposed to a zero interest balance transfer program.

Thus students end up with a sizable balance on a credit card with astronomical APR interest rates.

Patrick Taylor

April 3, 2013, 2 p.m.

I see the rise of fees, both in universities and in the business world, as the cost of people insisting that they get everything for the lowest possible price. Take airline fees: with websites like Orbitz airlines know that they need to have the lowest fares possible. They make up for the lost income by tacking on fees for baggage, legroom, food, and entertainment, things that used to be included in the price of the ticket.

At least part of the reason for this tricky accounting, especially in the public sphere, is that no one wants to have an honest conversation about how much the services we want actually cost, how to pay for them, and what realistic ways there are to reign in spending. Both parties approach to the budget is extremely partisan, playing to what they know their constituents will respond to. The anti-tax advocates don’t want a less-expensive, more efficient government they want no government. Imagine how much better our government could be if people spent as much time and money trying to make it work better rather than just painting it as the root of all evil.

Richard Bunce

April 3, 2013, 5:07 p.m.

Imagine how much better our government could be if people spent as much time and money trying to make it stop doing the many things it can never do well instead of just painting it as the solution to all our problems.


I agree with the notion that everyone wants more for less. But when a school has its own Apple store and a rabid alum base- is it still really necessary to gouge the students? Especially since today’s statistics indicate most of these degree seeking students either drop out or can’t find a job after graduation.

So in essence, we have a current generation (and more to come) of the disillusioned and potentially jobless. Living at your folk’s house after graduating college used to be a stigma, unless you were saving for your own place or to get married.

I don’t judge these kids, because I had to do the same for several years. These are the consequences of telling kids they have no hope unless they have a college degree…

Simply not true. Some of the finest people I know either didn’t finish school or decided not to attend. Which may make them smarter in the end. I know a lot of turds with college degrees - some who paid hundreds of thousands for a degree they cant use.

Karma at its finest.

Btw, what’s wrong with encouraging some of these people to go to vocational school? We still need mechanics and HVAC repairmen. Both respectable and honored, in my humble opinion.

One side note: fresh out of school, I decided that teaching in public school was my calling. I was not so politely advised/coached (nee intimidated) for trying to reassure my juniors and seniors that the lack of a degree didn’t necessarily spell doom for the rest of their lives.

Makes me wonder if there’s some kind of kickback system in place, like the recent NCAA scandals.

And do we really need to pamper these high profile buffoons the colleges compete for? Public service used to be a calling- and no one expected to get rich from it. Why can’t these former CEOs use some of their golden parachutes?

Especially since most of them live in lavish houses in campus, usually rent free.

It is the old switch and bait scheme. get them in with the tuition and then hit them with the fees. The total costs should be put on one sheet of paper and nothing else is added.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories