Posted October 25, 2010 by Elizabeth Beltramini 

The Growing Debate on Compulsory Student Fees

In the early stages of the college union movement, unions were student organizations and charged membership dues. Now, almost universally in the United States, the college union is an organization to which all students belong. Currently those “dues” to support the union often take the form of student fees.

Some might recall a few years ago when Australia legislation banned compulsory student unionism (i.e., student fees to support cocurricular programming and services). In September, a bill was introduced to allow institutions to charge a fee of up to $250 to fund amenities such as sporting facilities, child care, and counseling.

In related news, this month, a measure introduced in New Zealand seeks to follow Australia’s lead and ban compulsory student union membership. Some argue such fees unnecessarily tax students while others rebut that position saying the fee income is necessary to fund student services.

Thinking about your own campus, which side might you take? Union professionals across the world might argue the latter viewpoint, but how much is appropriate to charge students beyond tuition?

Because student fee monies are often taken for granted in the United States (until one is tasked with a referendum campaign, that is), one wonders what would happen if institutions could no longer charge such fees. How would that revenue be replaced?

Elizabeth Beltramini

Elizabeth Beltramini is the Director of Content Curation at ACUI.


Interesting article, here at my institution we are not supported through any fee. Which sometimes makes it difficult for us. If unions could not be supported through fee's, it would make for an interesting conversation about which services are provide for students, and at what cost.
Eric Heilmeier
Comment posted 10/26/2010 8:26 AM
My guess is that if we did not charge fees for services in our facility (or even for the facility itself), we'd have to charge for some of the services or programs we offer for free. Even if we charged the same rate as what we recover in fees, paying out of pocket vs. getting it "free" because the fees that were on your semester statement of account are two totally different things. That charge might exceed the perceived value so usage and participation might drop off. I've even seen this in reverse in our resource room: we provide the same services, and at the same cost, as we did in our previous incarnation. But because we've assigned a dollar value rather than an arbitrary point value, usage has gone up because there's a more definite value placed on the same piece of paper, poster, or button, that used to "cost" a student group nothing more than points. --Jeff
Jeff Pelletier
Comment posted 10/26/2010 2:54 PM
Over the years, I have found this debate quite interesting. What if we called these "membership fees" instead of mandatory fees. A membership fee is required if one joins a club or league. The fees give the members access to "free" activities and also allows members to participate in other activities that may require additional fees. In essence, a student that wishes to "join" our universities are required to pay the expected fees to gain the benefits of membership. Not all members take advantage of all services offered in any organization. The balance is crucial. We must have enough people paying fees to cover all the needs of the members. Now imagine the New Zealand scenario where some students are members of the union some or not. Think of your union where there is a check-in desk - similar to many Recreation Centers - where any student entering had to check in to make sure they are a "member." It would be a very different union. It would raise many questions about how we serve the greater university community. We would have to ask more directly are we meeting the needs of our members. Perhaps that is the most important part of all - are we providing the best balance of facilities and activities for our members. It's a question I ask myself and my staff all the time.
Timothy Reed
Comment posted 11/07/2010 1:56 PM
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