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student fees
The University of Dayton, which has stopped charging separate fees. Credit: University of Dayton

DAYTON, Ohio — At a time when public anger is laser-focused on tuition charges that are rising three times faster than inflation, something less well understood has actually been largely responsible for pushing up the cost of college: fees.

Think tuition is high? Now add fees for student activities, fees for athletics, fees for building maintenance, fees for libraries — even fees for graduation, the bills for which often arrive just as students and their families thought they were finally done paying for their higher educations.

All are frustratingly piled on top of a long list of expenses beyond tuition that many people never plan for or expect, or that can’t be covered by financial aid, sometimes forcing them to take out more and more loans, or quit college altogether.

“It was, like, what is this?” Ann Roach remembered thinking as she kept getting billed for fees when her oldest son went to the University of Dayton. “It’s like buying a car. You think you have a price, and then they tell you, ‘Here’s a conveyance fee, or here’s a fee for $200 to put the license plates on.’ Nobody told us about these.”

Fees nationwide continue to increase even faster than tuition — often covering the same things but letting institutions claim tuition hikes are slowing. Now, however, in response to anger from parents and students and pressure from legislatures, or for marketing reasons in a time when they’re struggling to attract applicants, a few universities and colleges are pledging to make them more predictable or even drop them altogether. And the resulting decline in borrowing and dropout rates on those campuses suggests the toll that fees were taking on their students.

Related: The mindboggling barriers that colleges create — and that end up hurting their own students

Since the time that Roach’s son went there, for instance — he graduated in 2012, to be followed by two younger siblings — Dayton has stopped charging separate fees and rolled them into tuition, which it guarantees not to increase for the four years an accepted applicant remains enrolled.

“It’s like buying a car. You think you have a price, and then they tell you, ‘Here’s a conveyance fee, or here’s a fee for $200 to put the license plates on.’”

The university was surprised to find that graduating students, in a survey, said they were “feeling nickel-and-dimed,” said Jason Reinoehl, Dayton’s vice president for strategic enrollment management. “Frankly they were ticked off, and they were saying this on the way out of college, which should have been a celebratory time.”

That’s because those graduates had been charged $2,100 annually in fees, on average, in five different bills per year, or at least 20 times per student over the course of their four years in college. Those included everything from counseling fees to lab fees to art studio fees to access to the recreation complex to a “professional development fee” in the school of business that turned out to pay for a subscription to the Wall Street Journal.

“This was why students were annoyed, and we needed to fix it,” Reinoehl said.

The fees weren’t necessarily lowered, but since 2013 they have been included in the tuition charge (this year, $40,940), meaning more of them can be covered by financial aid and all are paid up front. This also encourages the university to hold the line on annual increases, which can no longer be partly hidden in fees. “There are no surprises here,” pronounces a message splashed across the binder in which applicants receive information about how much the university will cost them to attend. *

The first students who were eligible for the program will graduate this spring, and the university says they have already had to borrow at least 15 percent less toward their educations. Dropout rates have also fallen. So has the proportion of admitted applicants who fail to show up for their freshman year in September after getting their first bill.

Fees still add up to plenty of surprises for students and their families on other campuses, however. One reason is that they’re hard to track. There are few sources of information on how much fees actually cost, on average.

Related: A huge and stubborn reason, still unsolved, that students go into so much debt

“Tuition gets all of the media attention, while fees are hidden to students and also to public knowledge and oversight,” said Jennifer Delaney, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who specializes in higher-education finance.

Fees at four-year public universities averaged $1,719 in the 2012-2013 school year, the most recent for which the figure is available, adding another 27 percent to student charges on top of the typical cost of tuition.

Those that are reported tend to be mandatory fees, not the growing number of so-called supplemental fees charged by individual courses or departments, such as lab fees and that professional development fee in the University of Dayton business school.

One new study calculates that student fees at four-year public universities averaged $1,719 in the 2012-2013 school year, the most recent for which the figure is available, adding another 27 percent to student charges on top of the typical cost of tuition.

Fees have also been increasing far faster than tuition, nearly doubling at four-year public universities and more than doubling at community colleges since 1999-2000, according to that study, by a Seton Hall University assistant professor of education, Robert Kelchen.

“We’ve all seen the proliferation of these, with multiple fees, multiple program fees and multiple course fees,” said University of Dayton President Eric Spina. Other universities, he said, tell their students, “’Don’t worry about the extra $400.’ Well, the $400 three years ago was $50.”

Students at public universities in Connecticut, New Jersey, South Dakota and Virginia were charged $2,500 or more in fees, per year, and in Massachusetts $8,280, Kelchen reported — nearly five times the cost of tuition in that state.

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Separate research at the University of Missouri found students nationwide being charged such things as academic building fees, academic credentialing fees, academic facility and life safety fees, arts and cultural enrichment fees, bicycle path maintenance fees, campus environmental improvement fees, “campus spirit” fees, ID card fees, safety fees, solar energy fees and, at one university, a “free/anonymous HIV testing fee.”

Athletics fees are particularly contentious. Athletic departments at Division 1 universities and colleges got an average annual subsidy of from $3.5 million to $4.2 million per school from student fees in 2011, according to the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. By dividing the athletic fee per student at Ohio University by the number of varsity athletic events the average student reported attending, the center found that each student there was paying $130 for each game he or she actually attended.

To make things worse, fees often increase with each successive year a student is in college in the form of such things as lab or studio fees added onto the cost of increasingly advanced courses in many majors. The only way to avoid them by that point is to drop out or transfer, risking the loss of academic credits.

If some of these fees sound like they’re covering exactly the same things tuition is supposed to — the University of Missouri study found, at various institutions, academic enhancement fees, academic excellence and success fees, education network connectivity fees, educational and technology fees, educational opportunity services fees, and library excellence fees — they are.

Many have been added to make up for state budget cuts, to avoid making tuition look like it’s rising too quickly, or because legislatures have ordered that tuition be frozen.

Related: University bureaucracies grew 15 percent during the recession, even as budgets were cut and tuition increased

In Missouri, for example, where public universities were stopped by law from raising tuition faster than inflation, they instead increased their fees by 138 percent over six years, an investigation by the state auditor found.

“But they held the line on tuition,” Kelchen said wryly.

In Massachusetts, public universities had to return their revenue from tuition to the state but got to keep the money that they made from fees; the result was that tuition didn’t increase, while fees skyrocketed.

Georgia’s Board of Regents added a $100 “special institutional fee” in 2009 when state funding was cut near the start of the recession. But while the funding has rebounded, the fee remains, and has increased to $450.

“It really does seem like a semantic thing, that it’s just another word for tuition,” Delaney said.

One result is that so-called full tuition scholarships might sound as if they cover the whole cost of college, but often fall short, since they don’t include fees. A merit scholarship for full tuition to public universities in Massachusetts, for example, nevertheless left students to come up on their own with what was then nearly $8,000 a year worth of fees, a Harvard study found.

That further complicates the already difficult struggle to pay for a degree. “A focus on affordability that doesn’t include predictability is really hard on students and parents,” said Delaney.

Or, as Spina put it, universities should “be right up front and tell our students: This is what you get for this price.”

A resulting backlash has a few institutions making changes, and some legislatures ordering them to.

After student complaints, the University of Kansas has reduced its athletics fee from $50 to $12 a year. The Virginia General Assembly has directed that, beginning this year, universities there reduce their reliance on student fees to support intercollegiate athletics; the legislation specifically limits Old Dominion University to using student fees for 55 percent or less of its athletics budget. Old Dominion students in 2014-2015 paid $1,429 each in athletics fees alone, accounting for 65 percent of the athletics budget.

Related: How free college tuition in one country exposes unexpected pros and cons

The Massachusetts Legislature has approved a change that lets the public universities there hold onto revenue from their own tuition. In response, starting next fall, the universities will wrap together tuition and most campus-wide fees in a single charge on a simplified bill.

And at the University of Iowa, eight different fees charged by the registrar’s office — including transcript fees, late registration fees, and fees to add or drop courses — were consolidated in the fall into one $225 fee. That’s $25 less than they previously cost separately. But the main reason for the change, said Registrar Larry Lockwood, was to help students manage their budgets by making sure they knew what charges to expect.

“We had to take control of this,” said Lockwood.

One of those fees was a $100 graduation charge that Iowa, like many universities, makes its students pay before they don caps and gowns and walk across the stage to pick up their degrees.

“How would you like to have to pay one more fee just as you’re about to graduate?” Lockwood asked.

Among other things, the change is expected to save the university money it used to spend chasing after fees. The University of Dayton, too, says it will end up saving money, not only by avoiding having to send out 40,000 separate bills per year for student fees, but by not having to go through the costly process of replacing students who quit school because they couldn’t afford to pay them.

It’s also an important selling point for the private Catholic university, which after a brief dip when students and their parents seemed confused about the changes, has seen a surge of applications and an increase in enrollment.

“This is very much about building trust,” said Dayton’s Reinoehl. “It’s our beacon. I think the whole industry is going to have to do this.”

He said other schools have called to learn more about the new way the University of Dayton bundles its charges.

For now, however, Reinoehl said, in much of the rest of higher education, there remains “a trend to charge more fees, not fewer.”

Students on the campus outside his window count themselves among the few American college and university students who live in blissful innocence of that.

One, Laylah Funk, said her friends at other schools “were blown away when I told them we don’t have to pay for health services or counseling.” Renee Brown, who has two siblings at other colleges, said they’re constantly being hit with fees. “You think you’ve paid for everything and then some fee comes up out of nowhere,” Brown said.

Studying in a quiet corner of the library on a frigid Ohio morning, computer-science major Ryan Berry was asked what it’s like to not have to pay for all of those fees his counterparts at most other colleges and universities face.

Berry responded with a quizzical look.

“I didn’t know that was actually a thing,” he said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

* An earlier version of this story misstated the University of Dayton’s current annual tuition charge.

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