What IS the Student Life Fee, Anyway? A Public Conversation.

Last spring, following our petition calling for the abolition of the Student Life Fee, Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen invited GSU to join a meeting of Student Government at which a discussion of the Student Life Fee was on the docket. What follows is a partial transcript of that meeting, focusing on the exchange between Dean Rasmussen and several of the GSU members in attendance.

The date: May 7, 2015, at 6:30 p.m.

The setting: A basement classroom in the Booth School of Business. Open pizza boxes and warm sodas sit on a back table.

The players: A smattering of Student Government representatives; Dean Rasmussen and two of her staff members; and a contingent of about a dozen GSU members, polite yet conspicuous in their disgruntlement.

[Recording begins abruptly, after Dean Rasmussen has been introduced]

Dean Rasmussen: … For this upcoming year there will be a total annual increase in the Student Life Fee for grad students of 48 dollars, and for undergrads, 54 dollars. That’s about a 4.6 to 4.9 percent increase.

This slide shows how we allocate the Student Life Fee; the allocation is quite similar for grads and undergrads with the exception of how the student activity fee is divided up. As you can see, the vast majority of the Student Life Fee goes towards health and wellness, including the Student Health Service, Counseling Service, Health Promotions and Wellness, various recreation initiatives. That’s on average about 75 percent of the SLF.

About 20 to 25 percent is the Student Activities Fee, including the Central Fund (more later) which is there to support to the RSOs (over 450), Student Government, programs and services and resources that support student life and student organizations; the CLI is also supported by this.

For graduate students, the Student Activities Fee is split into two pieces, because about half of the Student Activities Fee goes back to individual students through the Dean of Students offices for professional schools/programming. So for those of you who are grad students and don’t know that a portion of your Student Activities Fee is spent through your division or school, my recommendation would be that you talk to your dean of students or whoever leads your department’s association that is linked to Student Government. This is not something that is dictated by the central admin.

The very smallest portion of the pie (3% for grads, 4% for undergrads) goes towards campus activities – admittedly a very vague term – specifically Dean-on-Call, sexual assault and otherwise,, Bias Response, Response to Sexual Violence are all funded partially by this. These are all areas of growth. Last year we doubled the Deans-on-Call available for students in crises. We don’t do this entirely with fee money, but we do leverage fee money with central admin resources to make these services available to students.

So the difference between the allocation of the Student Activities Fee between grads and undergrads is that a portion of this money does not go back to the college for undergrads. Otherwise, the pie for grads and undergrads is pretty much the same.

So I thought it might be helpful to talk a little more specifically about that green and blue chunk – the Student Activities Fee. As I said, for different students the part of the fee that is given back for divisional use can really vary. For both graduate and undergraduate students the part that goes back to the central fund is used to support RSOs, and the rest of it goes to a whole bunch of categories related to student activities and life. Out of the central fund, most of the fee is going towards RSO support, the rest of the money goes towards all sorts of other categories of student life and activities. Arthur and Sarah [Cunningham, Director of Student Life and Assistant Dean of Students] will talk more about what those are.

Sarah Cunningham: Student organisation training and support covers training for student organizers, community creating, social programming at the Reynolds Club, barbeques for graduate and professional students, leadership development programs, e.g. the Gallop Programme, including a new two-day workshop which caters also to graduate students and those at professional schools, the Diversity and Inclusion program, the Safe Space Program, out of LGBTQ support efforts, 250 faculty and staff, expanded to students in the fall.

Rasmussen: Over the past couple of years, there has been an increased interest in Grad Council to allocate more funds for social events and for a travel fund. Based on a conversation we had a few days ago [between Dean Rasmussen and the chair of Grad Council], it sounds like Grad Council basically spent all that it was allocated last year and will be asking for a larger chunk next year.

Anthony Martinez, Grad Council chair: This year we spent close to $77,000 in supporting graduate organisations and travel. That’s our full budget plus some money we got from elsewhere [inaudible], so we requested additional funding and spent it.

Rasmussen: One of the things that comes up is that we have over 450 RSOs, and there is a popular misperception that RSOs are always college; but at least 90 RSOs are pretty much exclusively graduate, in terms of the interest of the topic that they are addressing, and many more RSOs have graduate student participation. So I think it’s important to keep in mind that while they seem very college-centric, a lot of graduate students are benefiting from them – which is how it should be. Because the whole point of this money is that it gives Student Government the ability to decide for themselves how they want to use money rather than having the central admin decide it for you.

I also just want to point out that beyond the Student Life Fee, in terms of its support of central services and resources and programs that enhance the quality of the student experience, this is not to say that the University is not also investing in the quality of the student experience. So if you take tuition, room and board off the table and think about what other ways the University is investing in the kind of experience that students need to have, not only a good positive outcome at the University of Chicago, but beyond that, I just point out that in the last 12 to 18 months Graduate Student Affairs has made tremendous efforts to enhance the services provided, particularly for graduate students. There are now four dedicated career councils, a whole slew of professional development workshops, writing skills, communication skills. The GradUCon annual conference is attracting more and more students and alums and employers every year; GSA launched childcare grants about a year ago and has made over 130 grants since then, they are trying to pay more and more attention to grad student families. I point all these things out to say that it’s not just the Student Life Fee being the value-added, that the University is paying a lot of attention to make sure the experience is quality as well. Obviously for the college, they are investing heavily there – financial aid initiatives, advising, the No Barriers program is a good example. So there are valid attempts to have the University invest heavily in the quality of student life, it’s not just about the quality of education, though that is first priority. Now I’ll pause for questions.

Undergraduate student: This is a question that I’ve asked Arthur in the past. It came to my attention that there are certain student organizations that are eligible for money from the Student Life Fee despite not being RSOs: mainly Greek life organizations which are not recognized by the University. This has been happening since the early to mid-2000s. I was wondering if you knew why that policy is in place, how it came about, or anything about it? And I’m sure that’s not something–

Rasmussen: My understanding is that non-RSOs have always had the ability to access this money. Like, I know that GSU has got money in the past and they’re not a recognized SO, so I don’t know if you if that’s true, or…

Sarah(?): It is. From the common fund of Grad Council, pots of money.. [inaudible]

Student: Right. My understanding is that the common fund is its own portion of that budget, whereas Greek life organizations go through the same process as RSOs through SG, which are generally reserved for RSOs.

Rasmussen: I’ll have to look into that – I’m not familiar with that. I definitely think that one of the things that we’re always looking to do – though it is somewhat complex, I will not deny – is trying to work towards greater and greater transparency towards where SLF money goes. So if in fact there is some ambiguity about how non-RSOs are getting money, if they’re getting it in ways that should be for RSOs, then we need to pay attention to that.

GSU member #1: Do we have any exact numbers on hand as to how much the SLF amounts to? And then, how much does the University actually spend on students? For us to see and compare if the University is in need, because the kind of argument being made is that the University already spends on students, but the SLF helps. Well, this is a multi-billion dollar industry, so I wonder how much the SLF is actually buttressing the University.

MR: No, it’s a good question. I don’t actually have the numbers today. I mean, I know that for example, this red portion totals about 1.7 million dollars. [mumbles about the Central fund]. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that, you know…it’s a…it’s a, not going to be set number every year, because the number of students changes every year, but that is a valid question. I think, as I mentioned before about transparency, about explaining the economics, if you will, of the SLF, particularly at the University of Chicago, and how it supports various streams of services that we should definitely work towards doing that. And in fact, one of the things that the executive financial director of campus and student life and I have talked about as a summer project is to kind of rethink how we present the information, because all we honestly do…I find it a little challenging sometimes to wrap my head around these three buckets – student life, campus activities, student activities – and I think it could benefit from some clarity. That’s definitely a goal for this summer.

[Why Do We Pay Twice for Medical Insurance?]

GSU member #2: Thank you. So, what remains unclear to me–and I am a former Graduate Council member, who’s seen earlier iterations of this information and studied it, and the charts have not changed that much over the past few years–what remains deeply and vague and also troubling to me is the following: first of all, I don’t see a clear distinction between the funds that we pay for health and wellness, which as you pointed out is a huge chunk of it for the grad Student Life Fee, it’s 77%, I don’t see why I’m paying $300 per quarter to have access to the physical health clinic and the mental health clinic in addition to the insurance that I have. So that’s one point of confusion that I really want to see addressed.

The second point of confusion is about the other stuff – the 23% remaining of the fee. You’ve laid out a number of worthy programs that my money funds. What’s not clear to me is why those belong in the bucket of separate, supplemental funds that I should be paying on top of my tuition. I was thinking specifically of the measures you listed, some of which seem to be ways that the university is fulfilling its legal obligation under Title IX, for example. I don’t see why I should be paying an additional fee so that the university can meet its legal obligations under federal law. I also don’t see why my SLF should be paying for diversity inclusion measures, which of course I support, I mean, of course, when the deep, deep irony of these fees is that they act directly against diversity and inclusion. I know that the University has heard these arguments before, but I’m not sure that they’re sinking in: the fact that these Student Life Fees are prejudicial to the graduation rates and success rates of students that go to this university. And even though it’s a laudable goal for the University to hold workshops for non-traditional students, far more harmful to the University’s demographic profile is these punitively high fees. And for that reason, Graduate Students United has called for their abolition. So I’d like to know on what grounds the University continues to speak about these fees as promoting diversity and inclusion when, to my mind and to many of us, they’ve clearly served the opposite purpose, or function at least.

Rasmussen: Well, I will address what is the easiest part of your many-part question. Umm, just to point out that the relationship between the Student Health Fee and your insurance:  so the majority of graduate students–in fact all graduate students who receive any kind of either departmental or divisional support from their unit, for the first five years or, I believe now, insurance is covered in your sixth and your seventh–is that the insurance rates that we’re able to get are predicated largely on the insurance company’s projection of how much patients are going to utilize the insurance. And so the rates are dependent on them knowing that there is a primary health clinic on campus that is going to take care of a lot of the primary health needs of students so that they won’t have to be referred out to specialists. That is a model of how student health insurance works in many institutions, I know that we’re a little bit different from them. So that totally explains why, if you’re on the U-SHIP, the reason why we keep the deductibles, the out of pocket expenses, the co-insurance rates, and the premiums as low as they are is contingent on the insurance company knowing that we have a student health and a student counseling clinic. Because mental health, once you start referring out, is really expensive, and then it would drive up insurance rates. So that answers that, partly.

[Are students helping to pay the university’s legal compliance bills?]

I think that a lot of your other comments, and I think clearly you hold strong opinions about what you think the University should or should not pay for, I would want to add that, um, the university is by far and away absorbing the costs of our federal requirements. You mentioned Title IX:  RSVP is a very small program, I’d love to grow it, but that is not the sole total of what we do to comply with Title IX. There’s many, many, many more things – a lot of my staff, who believe me are not funded by the Student Life Fee. So I just want to point out, I don’t want to leave the impression that the Student Life Fee is meeting all of the needs of the federal government and those statutes. It’s not.

GSU member #2: Are they meeting any of it, though?

Rasmussen: Excuse me?

GSU member #2: Sorry. Are they meeting any of it? Is any of the money that we put into this fund going to meet the minimal requirements that have been established under Title IX?

Rasmussen: Well, no, the only thing that I mentioned that some of the Student Activities Fee – that little tiny sliver – we have historically used some of that funding to help support RSVP, along with the on-call programs, the Sexual Assault Dean-On-Call program is not a requirement of Title IX. That is something that we began about 28 years ago, um, we thinks it’s very, very important and we think it helps [inaudible] Title IX, so.

Shouldn’t wages rise with fees? ‘Not necessarily.’

GSU member #3: Since the 2009-2010 academic year the Student Life Fee has gone up by 45%, and so now you’ve told us today that the increase from this year to the next year is going to be 4.8% as well. At the same time graduate student teaching wages have not gone up at all – by 0%. So I’m wondering what measures the administration has in mind, how they imagine that graduate students can continue to pay these increasing fees?

Rasmussen: So, I know that the cost of graduate education is one of the priority items on President Zimmer’s agenda. Vice-provost Beilock, who is going to be succeeding Debbie Nelson in terms of overseeing Graduate Student Affairs, has also mentioned this is something to be looking at. Frankly, it all boils down to, if you want the best students–which you do want, because that’s how you attract the best faculty–you have to be able to be competitive with your peers. So I can’t explain the mathematics behind how these fees have been decided upon since 2009, but I can tell you that, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, the administration is very sensitive, very aware of the sensitivity around fees and the cost to graduate students, particularly those who are no longer on GAI or have to pay their own way and, while I can’t speak for them, I do know that the Provost and the Vice-provost are…[inaudible] working with the deans and divisions. So, they are aware that these costs can be very challenging for students.

GSU member #3: Sorry, what measures are they taking to address that concern? I didn’t catch it. Are these just projected proposals that we’re not hearing about right now that Provost Isaacs is in charge of, or are there actual measures that they’re taking to counteract the worry that they perceive on behalf of graduate students?

Rasmussen: So all I can tell you is that when I’ve heard Provost Isaacs speak, one of the things he talked about in the Q & A part is graduate students and how that’s a priority for him in his relatively new tenure as Provost. So I would just say stay tuned, I mean this is something that they’re paying attention to and working with the deans very closely on. I’m not aware of…I’m not privy to the specific, um, agenda items per se, but this is an issue that we’re paying attention to.

GSU member #4: Doesn’t it seem intuitive that, if the cost of student life is increasing that much, that wages should increase as well?

Rasmussen: Okay, I mean, that’s maybe intuitive to you, but I’m just here [laughter; inaudible]. Let me just back up, I can’t talk to… I don’t have… I’m not trying to not answer your question. I honestly, my role in this University, I don’t work in the individual divisions to set aid packages to determine–

GSU member #4: As a human being, doesn’t it seem intuitive that our wages should increase if the Student Life Fee is increasing that much?

Rasmussen: That’s so interesting…that’s your opinion, I mean, I’m not saying…I don’t know what you want me to say here, you know–

GSU member #4: What is responsible for the increases? It’s gone up – well, in the last ten years it’s nearly doubled. What’s responsible for the increases in the last ten years?

MR: I can’t give you a laundry list, because I don’t set the fees, but it’s just based on the same factors that contribute to the rising tuition everywhere. I mean, it’s just the cost of running a research university, salaries, housing, health services, everything goes up, and as institutions become more and more ambitious in what they want to achieve, and they want to attract the best faculty and the best students, costs just go up. This is a problem that is perennial at institutions of higher education, it’s not just the University of Chicago that’s grappling with it – we’re all very aware the rising costs of education. It’s going to reach a point where the market can’t bear it any more… but I really am not qualified, frankly, to give you a discourse, or enter into discourses about the economics of higher education and why tuition is as high as it is, why college students are paying here – what $60,000 now? I’m not sure. But it’s very high – one of the highest in the United States.

It’s just a, a very challenging situation. So I think that, if you’re interested in the more specific topics of why costs are so high, or why you have to pay a Student Health Fee on top of insurance, or how insurance is calculated, how we get the insurance rate that we do, I think those would all be great topics to invite guest speakers to. I’m not sure this assembly is the right format for that, but there’s plenty of individuals on campus who’d be happy to talk to you about these problems. But, you know, in a way that is not– You know, the fact of the matter is, as far as the Student Life Fee is concerned, I know that GSU or the students that represent GSU want to see the fee abolished. I’m not quite sure how we could justify that when College students have to pay it as well. So the whole SLF is…we would have a very different suite of services available to you than we have now.

Sarah Cunningham: Time for one more question.

GSU member #5: Thank you for explaining the breakdown of the fees. I was just curious about the structure of how it’s charged. Why is it that, for graduate students, that we get our stipend and then we pay the fee back? It seems to be a little, you know, if the policy is that, as you stated, you only charge fees if everyone has to pay them, and they’re absolutely necessary – in that case, why not just deduct it and give us a stipend that is ours, rather than give the stipend and then you have to part with about 1/10th of it per quarter? Why don’t we have money that we just have, rather than having to keep giving back?

Rasmussen: It’s a simple question: I honestly don’t know. I don’t know why, what the– I don’t know if what you just described is consistent across all the schools and units, if it’s divisional, or by school. I can certainly try to find out what the rationale is for that. Um, if you– I’m not sure how to get back to you, but I can definitely find that out for you. I really have to go–

GSU member #6: Can I ask one quick one? You just suggested that there would be someone on campus who could explain to us why the Student Life Fee has gone up, but the stipend has remained stagnant, and who would be willing to come to a meeting. Could you tell us who that person is so that we can set that meeting up?

MR: I don’t know, I’m assuming it would be someone in the Provost’s office–

GSU member #6: OK, we don’t know either. That’s something we would like to know as well.

GSU member #7: We were hoping that you would tell us, but–

Rasmussen: Well, I think it depends on the question, but I would love–

GSU member #8: That was the question. [laughter]

Rasmussen: Right, but there have been multiple questions. So if you would like to send me an email, which you have been, I’d love to, I can share that with my colleagues and see– let you know how we can best address that.

GSU member #8: Thank you.

Rasmussen: Okay? Thanks, everyone.