Talk to Georgia college students and the conversation usually turns to how much debt they will graduate with.
They’ll complain about annual tuition increases by the State Board of Regents, which is expected to raise prices again when it meets later this week. They’ll stress over the “special institutional fee” created four years ago to offset state budget cuts. But they’ll rarely bring up the other fees students pay for perks like football teams or stadium improvements.
Students, who are asked to vote on these fees before they can go into effect, historically approve them with little consideration to how much it will add to the their bill.
“As students, we are concerned with tuition and paying for school,” said Dominique Quarles, president of the student government association at Georgia Southern University. “But we voted for the fees because it will improve our college experience. We care about both.”
Georgia Southern students will pay as much as $100 a semester in new sports-oriented fees. One fee allows the Statesboro school to expand its stadium to seat more students. The other would offset the costs of the university moving up to the highest division of NCAA football and would go into effect only should the school join a league at that level.
Students at Georgia State University have been paying about $85 in new fees since 2008 to support a football team. Kennesaw State students will pay an extra $100 a semester in athletic fees to field a football team.
The regents have told college presidents they can’t use taxpayer money to expand or launch these non-academic perks. Schools must find other sources of revenue — typically students’ wallets.
This comes on top of the charge the regents created about four years ago to offset state budget cuts. The special institutional fee costs between $160 and $544 a semester, depending on the college.
Fees are increasing faster than tuition across the country, but there is little data on the specific fees students pay, said Rita Kirshstein, director of the Delta Cost Project, a Washington-based group that studies higher education spending and affordability. Tuition has increased by 57 percent since fall 2008 at the University of Georgia, while fees jumped by 87 percent.
“Tuition is going up and everyone screams about that, but fees are much more subtle,” Kirshstein said. “Students want luxurious amenities and services. There are a lot of expenses students could walk away from, but they don’t.”
The higher athletic fee at Kennesaw State is projected to raise as much as $5.4 million annually. The $252 fee students will pay this coming fall is more than triple what students paid in athletic fees in fall 2003.
President Dan Papp said Kennesaw State needs football. The program will enrich students’ experience, help with faculty recruiting and raise money and name recognition for the fast-growing school, he said.
“Students expect more and they want more options, like football, on campus,” Papp said. “If you don’t give them what they want, they will go to a college that does.”
Those concerns are found across the higher education marketplace, said Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Baum, an economist who has studied college financing, said many students will pay more to avoid a bare bones college experience.
“The problem is what about the people who can’t afford this,” she said.
That kind of thought led current Kennesaw State senior Hamilton Young to vote against the fee increase when it was put before students in 2010.
“It is just another fee to take out of our pockets,” he said. “That money could go toward our tuition or books or gas to get to campus.”
But Young was in the minority. When students voted on the proposed fee, 55.5 percent of them supported it.
“I thought football would bring some pride and unity to campus,” senior Jasmine Harris said. “It will give our school something special. We pay all these other fees, so what’s the difference in paying one more.”
The regents and Chancellor Hank Huckaby approved a new policy last month that, in part, would take a harder look at student fees related to athletics.
Colleges will need permission from the regents before they can create or add sports or change competition levels. The regents plan to pay close attention to how any changes will affect what students pay.
The policy was drafted after officials learned several colleges planned to ask for permission to increase student athletic fees, said Houston Davis, the system’s executive vice chancellor.
Students assume they’ll keep paying more to get the perks they want.
Torri Gray, a junior, chose Kennesaw State because she liked the smaller campus. But she didn’t want to give up the activities one would find at a larger university, such as UGA.
“I still want a lot options,” she said. “And I’m willing to pay for it.”