Some UI students are upset they can no longer get fee refunds

URBANA — Sophomore Charissa Kim popped into the University of Illinois cashier's office last week, hoping to get her usual $69 student fee refund to supplement her tight school budget.

She was surprised to find the student fees in question are no longer refundable, a change university officials approved last winter.

To simplify its fee structure, the UI lumped together nine student-initiated fees totaling $73 — two mandatory ($4), seven refundable ($69) — into one nonrefundable $64 fee for this fall semester.

The fees in past years generated about $6 million a year (before refunds) for a variety of programs, from student organizations to scholarships to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

"It's kind of annoying," said Kim, a California native, who said she reviewed the fees and decided "I shouldn't be paying for any of this."

"I'm paying out-of-state tuition" so those extra costs add up, she said.

Other students said the university shouldn't have changed the status of the fees without a vote of the student body, which initially approved them as refundable.

"If we had that option," UI senior Isabel Yanes said, "they shouldn't have just taken it away."

And some parents complain they're being forced to support programs they don't necessarily agree with, such as cultural programming or environmental initiatives.

Administrators said incoming students and parents had complained in the past that the UI's myriad fees and varied tuition rates were too complicated.

Refundable fees approved by students in campus elections had proliferated over the years and ranged from $2 to $15 a semester. Students could get refunds after the semester started, and theoretically those students weren't eligible for the services provided by that money, such as discounts on tickets at Krannert.

But the fees had become an accounting headache, and the programs they funded didn't know how much money to budget for because the number of refunds varied each year, administrators said. The amount refunded rose from 13 percent in fiscal 2011 to 15 percent last year, topping $1 million.

And in most cases there was no easy way for the programs to track which students had gotten refunds for a particular fee, said Renee Romano, vice chancellor for student affairs.

The university lowered the fees by 13 percent before making them mandatory, officials said.

"We didn't end up with more money. We simply ended up with a more stable system, a system that didn't cause confusion and university resources to refund, and it was fairer to the students," Romano said.

Administrators consulted student groups about the proposed change last fall, and student organizations supported by the fees tried to put a question on a campuswide ballot asking students if they'd support the lower mandatory consolidated fee. But that effort failed to gather enough signatures, and the student senate took a stance against the change.

Romano then worked with student government leaders to provide more student oversight and input on the fees.

Each fee now has its own student advisory board that will review how the money is spent. And the existing Student Fee Advisory Committee, which advises the chancellor on other student fees, will review the student-initiated fees as well, she said.

Each fee also will have to be reaffirmed in a campuswide student vote once every four years, on a rotating basis.

Any fee increases will have to be reviewed by the Student Fee Advisory Committee, though Romano said she doesn't expect many fee increases or new fees.

"The university is really working hard to keep tuition and fees as low as possible," Romano said.

Students could still gather signatures to force a referendum on a particular fee if they believe it should be eliminated, Romano added.

She said she received more complaints from parents in past years about the long list of $2 and $3 fees "nickel and diming them to death. People thought that was ridiculous," she said.

Stephen Watts of Bloomington, whose son is a sophomore at the UI, called the fees "devious." The money was charged to students, who then had to be alert to request refunds with a narrow window of time, he said.

But administrators said students initially designed the fees as refundable to improve their chances of passing in a campus referendum.

Watts called the new arrangement "institutionally sanctioned theft" and said the purposes of the fees will now be much less transparent because they will now be shown as a single line item on student accounts.

"For the record, I do not appreciate paying for someone else's 'great idea.' No matter how good-willed some of these causes might be, they are not my causes," Watts added in a letter to top UI officials on Sept. 4.

"I do not want to have money taken away and squandered on someone's feel-good solar energy experiment," he said, one of a long list of causes he cited in the letter.

Romano said students pay tuition and fees for a variety of programs at the university where "they may or may not want their money to go. That doesn't change the fact that the board of trustees and the university have a responsibility for doing the best they can to set tuition and fees in a fair way."

Student Trustee David Pileski said taxpayers also fund roads that they may only drive on once.

"You're helping establish a better student-friendly climate, whether it's sustainable and a clean campus or promoting cultural diversity on campus," he said.

And students will always have the option to vote against renewing a fee or even serve on a review committee, he said.

Pileski, who was student government president last year, said he's been working with administrators to address "hard feelings" about the change.

He is drafting a statement for a campus referendum later this fall, allowing students to voice support or discontent with the new oversight measures put in place for the student-initiated fees.

If it fails, student leaders will try to "figure out how to restructure it in a way students will be happier with," Pileski said. "We've generally gotten positive feedback."

UI senior Cameron Jones said he never bothered to get a refund because he used services supported by the fees. He studied abroad, was involved in student organizations, and had classes where he was required to attend plays at Krannert, so he enjoyed the ticket discount.

Yanes, a civil engineering major, didn't always get refunds, either. She spent a summer studying abroad in Spain, and thinks the collegiate readership fee, which supports free newspapers for students on campus, is a good idea. She may not read one every day, but "when I need it, it's there."

Still, she said Thursday, it depends on students' individual situations.

"I'm in desperate need this year. We're in a bad economy," she said.

Chelsea Manaligod, a sophomore from Mundelein, said her family has two children at the UI and every dollar counts, "especially with how much we're paying for tuition."

Her parents called her last year and said, "you need to get that refund," she said.

2011-12 student-initiated fee structure, revenue

 

Fee Amount Assessed  Waived  Refunded  Net
Collegiate readership fee $2 161,846 2,905 2,290 156,651
Krannert Center fee  $20 1,710,500 11,850 310,550 1,388,100
Energy technologies fee  $2 180,230 3,228 5,356 171,646
Cultural programming fee  $3 242,796 3,477 44,736 194,583
Legacy scholarship fee  $15 1,214,025 17,340 223,170 973,515
Sustainable campus environment fee  $14 1,132,978 16,198 210,630 906,150
Study-abroad scholarship fee  $5 305,925 395 47,575 257,955
Student organization resource fee  $6 596,070 0 102,486 493,584
Students for Equal Access to Learning fee  $6 485,664 0 84,966 400,698
Totals  $73 6,030,034 55,393 1,031,759 4,942,882

This story appeared in print on Sept. 23.

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vcponsardin wrote on September 25, 2012 at 8:09 am
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Once again, with the state supporting less of the university's budget each year, is it any wonder fees and tuition keep going up?  It won't be long before the U of I becomes a completely private institution--a state university in name only.  

Fedupwithstatereps wrote on September 25, 2012 at 8:09 am

Exactly my sentiments.  What do the people of Illinois think is going to happen if the State keeps slashing their support each year? 

EL YATIRI wrote on September 25, 2012 at 8:09 am
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Dishonest bait and switch.  The students deserve to get shafted if they don't take actions to stop this scam.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 25, 2012 at 10:09 am

It is assumed that all of the students pay their own fees.  Many students have their fees paid by state, and federal programs.  In the past, the programs paid the fees only to have the student have the fees refunded to them rather than the program.  Picking, and choosing which things to support with fees is like picking, and choosing which programs to support with individual taxes.  A student may have a fee refunded; but continue to utilize whatever the fee supported.  Cutting administrative costs, and perks would go a long way in revenue saving at the university along with non-refundable fees.  

gamera wrote on September 25, 2012 at 10:09 am

Even 20 years ago when I was in school, I knew plenty of students who got refunds and still used the services. It was well-known that you could get your MTD fee refunded and they had no way of knowing whether you paid or not. Many people I knew got their MTD fee back and still rode the buses everywhere. Unless there is a way to prevent free-loaders from stealing services when they aren't paying for them, this sounds like the fairest policy. Plus, it's sounds like students can work to get fees repealed---just like in the real-world. 

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on September 25, 2012 at 12:09 pm
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But there was no free MTD twenty years ago. Not even fifteen years ago.

 

Just sayin' is all.

Brad Cortright wrote on September 26, 2012 at 12:09 am

Hi Rob.  I think you are incorrect regarding the MTD Fees for U of I Students.  I found the following on the MTD website:


"The relationship between the District and the U of I also continued to grow. In April of 1989, the students passed a referendum establishing a one-year trial, during which MTD would provide a campus transportation system. The project proved to be a great success and continues to this day."


I specifically remember paying a fee to the U of I by semester to ride the MTD in 1993 which would be almost 20 years ago.  I beleive all you had to do in order to ride was flash your student ID.


 

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on September 26, 2012 at 8:09 am
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Good god, it's Brad Cortright.

 

I don't doubt your memory. We didn't have it in the mid-90s when I was in law school. So I suspect there's a bit of fudging in that paragraph. A "trial" run that ... popular ... continues today. 

Orbiter wrote on September 26, 2012 at 10:09 am

ROB McCOLLEY:  Are voluntary fees that the undergraduate students vote into existence to support their pet projects and causes also assessed to graduate students? Professional (law) students?  Likely not.  So your experience may not reflect that of the bulk of the student body.

Acl wrote on September 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm

They are mandatory for graduate students ( my husband is a phd student). Graduate student union dues are also mandatory and deducted from his stipend, even thought the union negotiations have actually lowered benefits for his department. It's 2% of his paycheck, not chump change. He should not be required to pay for these "pet causes" - they aren't general benefits. Total fees are ~$1400/year, plus the union dues. 

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on September 26, 2012 at 11:09 pm
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I couldn't possibly have said it more compellingly, so I'll just answer "yes."

fflkommish wrote on September 25, 2012 at 11:09 am

Create a voluntary fund to support some great cause...we can all feel better about supporting it, and no one has to pay it if they don't want.

Oh, wait, scratch that....now all the students can pay whether they want to or not.

45solte wrote on September 25, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Take and spread around to others.  Sounds likes something a lot of college kids are in favor of unless they are exempt from their ideology.  In favor of it only if they're not the ones buckin' up the money.  The government is broke.  As in the people are broke.  Only so much you can keep taking from others.  Sustainability issues. 

SCWatts wrote on September 25, 2012 at 4:09 pm

This goes back to September. Then, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Renee Romano pushed an effort to create a campus wide ballot asking students if they’d support making the fees mandatory. That effort failed due to lack of signatures. Ms Romano ignored the will of the students and continued on.

Then in January, the administration continued trying to ram this through. The student senate voted against the administration’s desire to make these fees non-refundable, by a vote of 21-2. Ms Romano again ignored the will of the students and continued on.

The former vice-chancellor for student affairs wrote to Chris Kennedy, Board of Trustees chair informing him this change would violate the original agreement, and that without the fees being refundable, the students originally would never have approved them. He advised these fees shouldn’t become nonrefundable without a vote by students. Ms Romano and Chris Kennedy ignored these facts and have instead forced a Board of Trustees vote to essentially overturn the will of the students . . . so much for "student initiated."

From January:

http://www.news-gazette.com/news/education/2012-01-18/ui-students-oppose-plan-end-fee-refunds.html

Oh, and please review the list of fees before you buy the administration's line of "all students enjoying the services." The fees either provide no "services," or nearly all the remainder of the services they do provide are very targeted and exclusive to only a few students, such as gradutate students who want someone else to pay for their travel (not study) abroad.

rsp wrote on September 25, 2012 at 6:09 pm

In September, students from organizations supported by the refundable fees tried to put a question on a campuswide ballot asking students if they'd support making them mandatory, Pileski said. But that effort, backed by Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Renee Romano, failed because they didn't gather enough signatures, he said.

It sounds more like Romano was in favor of supporting the students efforts in slowing things down. And the list of fees is at the bottom of the article.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 25, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Is it a question of students wanting the benefits of the programs that the fees support; but do not want to pay for them as an individual?  Would the students vote to eliminate the programs if there was insufficient money to pay for the programs?  The fees should be a student cost, not a taxpayer cost.  Perhaps; a student referendum listing which programs to eliminate, or keep should be considered since the cost is theirs.  The majority of students may not see the Study Abroad fee benefiting them individually, and eliminate it.  Following the referendum, the fees should be mandatory.  Taxpayers do not have the choice of which programs to support, or receive a tax refund by choosing not to support.  There have been no demonstrations regarding the fees.  Oh, wait...................  students do not demonstrate anymore. 

Orbiter wrote on September 25, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Sid, I fail to see the relevance of your point.  The question is not whether the students who benefit from a program are paying for it. The question is nothing about Illinois taxpayers.  The question is not whether advance-collection of a voluntary and refundable fee is a good idea.  The question is not about proving who asked for a refund.  

The question is whether the University is acting in accordance with the agreement it had with the students.  The students voted the fees into existence, and can vote the fees out of existence. But for now, these fees in question are only legitimately voluntary fees, i.e., refundable.  If the University refuses to refund the advance-payment of the voluntary fees, as it agreed to do, it violates its agreement with the student government, it violates its covenant with the students at large, it violates the conditions set forth by which it collects the fees, and it violates ethics in refusing to refund the fees. It is acting with coersion, and in fact commits extortion.  "You will pay the voluntary fee, or you will not be allowed to graduate, despite paying all other fees and tuition and passing all exams."

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm

So let the students vote to keep the fees, or eliminate them.  The students have enjoyed the refund of some fees while later benefiting from the programs which the fees support.  The accounting problem of individually keeping track of a student obtaining a refund, and utilizing a program led to the mandatory fees with no refund.  It comes down to money.  In regard to the university violating ethics, and agreements; there has been ample proof of that in recent years.  What's new with that? 

Orbiter wrote on September 25, 2012 at 7:09 pm

The actions of the University here are atrocious and unethical.  The students voted to ask the University to advance-collect a voluntary fee for non-academic causes, and the University is now refusing to honor the voluntary aspect of those fees. It is irrelevant that the University decided to under-collect from willing students and make up the difference from the unwilling students. The University is either  (1) unethically seizing the monies from the student body with no authority to do so, or (2) requiring an equivalent fee from non-participating students and giving that money to non-academic causes (a discriminatory tax), with no statutory authority to do so, which is also unethical.  Either way, the University is grieviously in the wrong here, and it is astonishing that the administrators don't see this.  

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Your seriously commenting on the U of I's lack of ethics?  It is a little late for that.

randyandjoy1 wrote on September 26, 2012 at 6:09 am

Let me get this straight. I'm a little slow so follow me. We have soaked the next generation with $16 trillion+ in acknowledged debt ($22k per US citizen man woman and child) and no end in sight increasing exponentially at a rate of $6 trillion in the last 4 years alone...and the next generation is concerned about a paltry fee? Huh? This isn't meant partisan (D vs R) but a simple acknowledgement of fact which seemingly very very few comprehend the inevitable ramifications in the future. Why are we concerned about a small fee not being returned or a blown call in a football game when what we've allowed in Washington DC has doomed the next gneration to severe austerity inevitably.

rsp wrote on September 26, 2012 at 8:09 am

Because they can walk in and get that little bit of cash in their hands and go out and party. They can see it and feel it. Last year when they were taking it away it was someone else's problem, this year it's personal. And how can they get away with ruining our distracting football games? How are we supposed to keep our minds off of real problems when things like that are aloud to happen. 

Orbiter wrote on September 26, 2012 at 10:09 am

rsp, yourt ad-hominem argument is unpersuasive.

urbanagirl wrote on September 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Now it's actually just a credit to their student account.  Several years ago one of the refund periods (when they still actually distributed cash) coincided with Unofficial...and students came into Henry drunk asking for their refunds so they really could go out and party.

Orbiter wrote on September 26, 2012 at 10:09 am

randyandjoy1: No doubt thare is a lot of fiscal irresponsibility in DC (and europe). And there is chaos in the middle east, uprisings in China and famine in other parts of the world.  None of that negates the wrongness of extortion by the University.  Sometimes you need to pick the battles close to home, or the battles you can win.  To suggest that all other problems need to be solved before one tries to stop being extorted by their University is a poor argument.  

bluegrass wrote on September 26, 2012 at 10:09 am

What the heck is a "refundable fee?" 

I thought that was called a loan, or a deposit. 

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Based on the article; it seems like paying a toll fee to cross a bridge, and getting a refund when you cross back over the bridge.  The complaints from the students seem lacking.  There is no mass outrage other than a complaint about the U of I's ethics.  The U of I's ethics problem is already well known all over the state, and country.  What do people expect with the brand name Illinois on it?

cuhere wrote on September 26, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Sid: That's not quite right. The refundable fees were student-initiated as an optional way for students to contribute to causes. For instance, the students voted via referendum to include in these refundable fees the Sustainable Campus Fee that supports initiatives to make the campus more energy efficient, among other things.

Because students likely wouldn't go out of their way to opt in to these fees, they were set up to automatically be a part of students' semester bills. Students could then go and get these amounts refunded after the semester starts (hence the name). Students that got these fees refunded, however, cannot use any services they fund. For instance, students that got their Krannert fee refunded cannot buy tickets at student prices, and students who got their student organization fee cannot use anything supported by that fee, such as Student Legal Services.

These fees were instituted by referendum of the student body as refundable, and the University has made them non-refundable without the students' consent. What's worse is that these refundable fees include scholarship funds set up by these referenda; essentially, the Board of Trustees now mandates students to contribute to other students' scholarships as a condition of attending U of I!

I wish there was more student outrage about this, but college students can be quite ambivalent. It certainly doesn't help that the Board did this after the Student Senate voted to show the students' opposition.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 26, 2012 at 9:09 pm

What do you propose to solve the "accounting nightmare" mentioned in the article?  I was assigned by a program utilizing federal money to pay tuition and fees for some of the students attending the U of I along with grants to the university before I retired. I was able to put a stop to the students receiving refunds on fees that were paid by taxpayers with the assistance of Henry Admin. personnel.   It was bad enough to pay for some of the fees such as the Study Abroad fee; but it was worse having students receive refunds of the taxpayers money.  Students are just like everyone else.  Some are honest; and some are not.  The decision to pay the additional fees should be made by students at registration with the full understanding that the fees are not refundable once the choices are made.  A simple understanding of the fees with "Yes", or "No" boxes to be checked would suffice.   

cuhere wrote on September 27, 2012 at 2:09 pm

They had streamlined the process for getting the refunds over the past few years, so I'm sure the University could figure something out. Isn't that what they pay accountants for? Even if they can't, then the University should have asked the students what they wanted to do: mandatory fees or no fees, instead of unilaterally making the decision. The students asked for these to be assessed on the condition that they were voluntary.

I agree students shouldn't be getting refunds of taxpayer money from these fees though.

ericbussell wrote on September 27, 2012 at 2:09 am

"Students could still gather signatures to force a referendum on a particular fee if they believe it should be eliminated, Romano added"

I appreciate the accounting challenges that refundable fees create, but can Ms. Romano actually look people in the eye when she's saying this?

For whatever reason, the university organizations supported by these fees have failed to get the support of the student body to make these fees mandatory.  The issue here is not the value of the programs supported by the fees, but the lack of leadership and the poor message sent by the university to the student body. 

I just can't imagine the accounting headache was worth telling the students they are not smart enough to determine on their own what they should value.  Instead of removing fees, maybe the students should consider a new leadership fee that supports training for Ms. Romano and her staff on how to better handle accounting headaches in the future. 

 

asparagus wrote on September 27, 2012 at 6:09 pm

@Orbiter,

Ethics??? At U of I???? LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Is it time again for ethics training? Oh Boy, I can't wait!

I wonder what the themes will be this year?

 

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 27, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Cubs tickets.  For a number of years, the scenario was a gift of Cubs tickets for a favor.  Imagine taking a chance on losing your job for Cubs tickets!!!  We had to take the test, print out the certificate for passing the test, provide the supervisor with a copy of the certificate so they had a copy for your 201 file.  They would make a copy of the copy, and fax it to Springfield.  You could not do the test too fast; or you were suspected of cheating.  Do you believe the legislators take the test?  Do you believe the administrators take the test?  Do you still believe in Santa Claus? 

asparagus wrote on October 14, 2012 at 9:10 pm

I don't believe that upper admin "take the test."  This test is a joke.  It is an attempt to placate the public. It is compltetely innefectual.  Anyone who opened their eyes and "LOOKED" at this would say,"Whoa!, this is bullcrap!"

I am so dissappointed in those that pretend to rule this state. Violations of basic ethical standards are rampant in this state.

Someone could make their carreer by examining the transactions of one Melanie Loots.  Chief ethics officer at the U of I. Take a look at what she has signed of on in terms of blatant exeptions to the COI rules.  See who has profited from her actions.  It is vary far from "just" or "seemly".

 

 

Cornfields wrote on September 29, 2012 at 10:09 am

"And some parents complain they're being forced to support programs they don't necessarily agree with, such as cultural programming or environmental initiative." 

And this is different from real life -- how?  Almost everyone pays taxes that support all sorts of things that they don't approve of, either.  A university the size of UI is really a town in and of itself. If that $69 makes a difference to your ability to attend UI, then you probably should be looking at schools that fit your budget better. 

 

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 29, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Cornfields;  Thank you for your common sense comment.  Your right.  Someone will differ with you though based on the Student Senate not approving it.  The students are not marching down Green Street over it.  They seem apathetic about it.  However, others on campus are outraged about it.  They denounce it not because of $69; but for the principle of it going against student governance.  Mean while; everyone else wash the windows in the ivory towers.  

SCWatts wrote on September 30, 2012 at 6:09 am

Whoa Cornfields . . . think about what you have written. You have compared these formerly refundable fees to taxes, which are imposed by elected government officials, and you have implied that we shouldn't care about them because the amount is inconsequential.

The "elected officials" in this case were the students who initiated the fees, in some cases decades ago. The fees were always intended to be refundable because they are "cause based." The administration has staged a coup and thrown out not just the original intention of the fees but even a 21-2 against student senate vote. Essentially, the administration has determined the students, who initiated the fees, are no longer capable of managing this issue on their own.

As another poster stated, ". . . the Board of Trustees now mandates students to contribute to other students' scholarships as a condition of attending U of I!"

The U of I administration has ignored clearly stated student will and now, as a condition of attending U of I, has mandated that everyone must subsidize graduate students' European vacations (not an exaggeration, check it out). Do you really think that's OK?

Cornfields, I don't care whether the cost is $69,000 or 69 cents. It's wrong, it's unethical, and quite frankly, it's socialism. When it comes to government, or succumbing to the will of pseudo-governmental authorities like this administration and Board of Trustees, we get what we deserve. And comments like "If that $69 makes a difference to your ability to UI, then you probably should be looking at schools that fit your budget better" come from people who are very comfortable with unquestioningly permitting authorities to make their decisions for them.

What Renee Romano and the Board of Trustees has done here is very, very wrong, but they are capitalizing on what they expect to be overwhelming apathy. Sadly, I believe they'll get their way.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm

If Mike Hogan, and Lisa Troyer were still in charge; this would have never happened. 

Seriously, ethics have been missing at the U of I for years.  This minor controversy is nothing to compare with the previous scandals.  This is expected behavior at the university, and in the State of Illinois.