Gaming Excellence

After his institution imposes an inarguable "excellence" fee on students, Clarence Sowers envisions other one-time charges to follow.

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September 8, 2009
 

Each summer, the registrar at our university distributes the official Tuition and Fees table for the upcoming academic year. Generally, I glance over the document quickly, taking care not to commit any of its content to memory. (How else can I eschew any culpability for them?) This year, however, for some reason, my eyes lingered a little longer than usual over the document's multitudinous fees.

Most were fairly predictable and straightforward. One, however, was conspicuously nondescript: the Excellence Fee. A library fee, presumably, provides critical information resources and systems (e.g., card catalogs) for students. But an excellence fee? Don't get me wrong, no one supports excellence -- and quality, and high performance and a host of other equally nebulous words and phrases -- more than me. (Just look at any one of the grant proposals I’ve written in the past few years.) But an excellence fee?

My discovery soon lead me to wonder whether my institution was unique in levying such charges. So, like any researcher worth his or her salt, I Googled the fee structures of a number of area colleges and universities. Having thoroughly reviewed several, I can confidently report that excellence (and other, similarly ambiguous) fees are quite commonplace.

On some level, one has to appreciate postsecondary administrators’ creativity in developing -- and, especially, naming -- fees which will be warmly (or at least not coldly) received by policymakers, boards, funding agencies, students and their parents. (After all, who's going to argue against “excellence”?) To this end, I've concocted a few more fees which higher education leaders may wish to consider implementing as additional revenues become necessary. Note: the following fees have been made up. Any resemblances to actual fees, though likely embarrassing, are entirely coincidental.

21st Century Fee: applied toward preparing students for the current century's challenges and issues.

22nd Century Fee: applied toward preparing students for the next century's challenges and issues. (Given ongoing medical advancements and modern fiscal realities, I suspect most students today will still be working in 2100.)

Jargon Fee: applied toward ensuring students and their parents gain broad exposure to the unique and often confounding acronyms and terms utilized by postsecondary personnel.

Non-Technology Fee: applied toward providing students access to non-technology-related educational resources (e.g., desks, lighting, toilet paper, etc.).

Bureaucracy Fee: applied toward ensuring students are directed to at least three different institutional offices before any issues they may have are resolved

Superior Fee: applied to ensuring students believe their educational experiences are better than those of students at other institutions.

Of course, such charges are implemented because the costs of facilitating postsecondary educational experiences continue to increase, and institutions struggle to generate funds through sufficient existing revenue sources. While most fees are legitimate and appropriately utilized to provide legitimate services and resources, some smack of attempts to avoid cost transparency.

In such cases, postsecondary leaders should be clearer about why the fees are needed, how they are (or will be) used, and, over time, that they are, in fact, being applied as originally proposed. Otherwise, higher education administrators are merely gaming the notion of excellence in education, and modeling the wrong behaviors to the very individuals they serve: students

As for me, I’m going to recommend that my institution replace its existing Excellence Fee with a Fee Fee to cover the expenses associated with the development, implementation, management and explanation of its other student fees. For one, a Fee Fee is more justifiable -- even if in an ironic sort of way. Most importantly, however, it’s honest, and better reflects the level and type of transparency institutions should be practicing in the first place.

Now, about those card catalogs ...

Bio

Clarence Sowers is the pseudonym of an academic administrator at a university in the south central United States.

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