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Cal State's 'success fees'

There were no binding student votes to approve Cal State's 'success fees'

A dozen California State University campuses now impose what they euphemistically term “student success fees,” which can range from a couple hundred dollars a year to about $800, on top of tuition, room, board and other costs. There were no binding student votes to approve the fees, as there usually are when such assessments are imposed; in fact, at Cal State Los Angeles, the then-president ignored a student advisory vote that overwhelmingly rejected an increase. Nor were the fees put before the system-wide board of trustees.

In other words, campus presidents, with the backing of Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White, have been unilaterally raising the price of public higher education. The fees have been charged even as tuition prices have sharply increased, nearly doubling to $5,500 since 2007. The money raised by the fees has been used to hire professors and counselors, install campus Wi-Fi, award athletic scholarships and for other expenses. Where it has been used to hire instructors and counselors, it is de facto tuition with a less honest name.

The Legislature finally declared an 18-month moratorium on new success fees last summer, after they already had been imposed at more than half the Cal State campuses. Next week, a committee tasked with examining the issue will present its findings to the Board of Trustees. It will propose that no new fees be imposed without student approval and will call for more transparency on how the money is spent.

Both are necessary, but not nearly restrictive enough.

When fees are imposed, they should include sunset dates, so that one set of students isn't encumbering future generations. Fees should not be used to hire full-time, permanent faculty or staff, which locks a school into higher expenses down the road in the form of salaries, raises and pension obligations. In fact, fees should not be used on instruction at all. That's a tuition expense, not a fee. The board should not allow the creation of have and have-not campuses, setting up a situation in which students with more money pay fees that others can't afford at the colleges that offer more courses and counselors.

At campuses that have already imposed fees without student approval, students should have the chance to roll them back with a binding vote.

But none of this solves the real problem, which calls for a more comprehensive approach: State officials must grapple with the reality that they have been demanding more of Cal State — and the University of California — than current budgets cover, even with families filling more of the gap by paying higher tuition. It is time for Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to reckon with the true cost of fulfilling the once-visionary mission of higher education in California.

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