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The Rising Cost of College: Student Fees

Courtney Lee, Jacob Jackson March 14, 2018
Cap On Money

Students, parents, and lawmakers often express concern about tuition increases at California’s public universities. But tuition is not the only college cost that has been rising. Students also pay fees that cover many non-instructional costs, and between 2013 and 2016, student fees increased an average of 21% at both the UC and CSU systems, even as tuition itself stayed flat.

UC charges a systemwide fee ($1,228 for 2017‒18) to cover student affairs operations, and UC campuses can assess their own fees. CSU does not assess a systemwide fee; instead, the Chancellor’s Office allows campuses to decide how much to charge for each of seven fee categories, ranging from health services and facilities to instructionally related activities to the student association. When students vote to approve referenda, they are agreeing to implement fees for new or expanded services.

Fees typically pay for things like student affairs services, health center services, campus gym services and facilities (initiated at UCLA and UC Irvine in the early 2000s), and student union seismic retrofit fees. Today, student-advocated fees commonly pay for expanded psychological health services and recruitment and retention centers.

Campus-based and systemwide fees add from 15% to 25% to tuition at UC and 15% to 65% at CSU. Total fees assessed in 2017‒18 range from $1,759 (UCLA) to $2,949 (UC Santa Barbara) in the UC system and from $843 (Fresno State) to $3,718 (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo) at CSU schools.

While financial aid protects low income students from tuition increases, it doesn’t always cover fees. State and institutional aid programs cover only tuition and systemwide fees, so most campus-based fees must be paid by all students. This lack of coverage is becoming a bigger issue now that fees are on the rise. The UC Regents systemwide fee increased more than 10% from 2013 to 2016, and campus-based fees increased an average of 24%. At CSU, campus-specific fees increased by an average of 23%. This has increased the total cost of attending college even though the state and the two systems made a deal to freeze tuition.

Fees have become an important source of revenue for campuses, enabling them to provide non-instructional services. But, along with high housing costs, rising college fees are having an impact on students and families. As policymakers consider revising the master plan and the administration of state financial aid, they need to address growing non-tuition costs.

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