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
|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|
This story appeared in print on Sept. 23.