Under pressure to contain tuition costs, public colleges and universities in recent years have increasingly used fees to sustain programs and services, “often leaving students and their families confused about why the final tab is higher than they expected,” the Boston Globe reports.
Families generally expect traditional tuition, room, and meal charges, but the Globe notes that “even families who have done their homework…can find surprises” on their invoices—fees for everything from libraries to athletics, technology, health insurance, mentoring, science labs, and more.
Fees outpacing tuition growth
Fees at public universities more than doubled between 2000 and 2017, while tuition increased by 80 percent, according to Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University who has studied student fees. The growing reliance on fees reflects universities’ reluctance to increase tuition rates, even as state funding covers a shrinking share of their costs.
Given the controversy that can accompany a tuition increase, “it’s easier to get a new fee than increase tuition in some cases,” Kelchen said. Moreover, in some states—Massachusetts, for example—schools must pass tuition dollars along to the state but are allowed to retain fees.
Unexpected costs especially challenging for first-gen students
The striking number of fees can be particularly problematic for first-generation and low-income students, who may be overwhelmed by costs that they didn’t see coming. These students often navigate the college process alone and, amid all the paperwork, can easily overlook fee details—including opportunities to waive certain services, such as duplicative health insurance. “It’s very confusing … what’s on there and if it should be there,” Shannon Vasconcelos, director of college finance at College Coach, told the Globe.