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Maryanne Stevens

The writer, of Omaha, is president of the College of St. Mary.

I’m often asked why College of St. Mary recently eliminated all student fees. My response: it was the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, not all colleges and universities can abide by that philosophy. And who can blame them — higher education institutions are extremely complex. No “one size fits all” approach will work, especially when considering financial models. However, I believe there are huge opportunities for improvement as it relates to the student fee structure in higher education.

Let’s get right to the point: A transparent financial model is crucial to financial literacy, a subject which is lacking among many college students through no fault of their own. A transparent model is more ethical, as well. Students search online and see the tuition. The fees often show up only on the bill they receive following registration for their courses.

Also, many fees are confusing. For example, what is a “campus spirit” fee, or what does the “library fee” pay for? Questions arise such as, “I’m an online student from another city. Why do I need to pay a library fee?” If a student opts out of campus activities, do they still need to pay the “campus spirit” fee? These charges simply add to both the cost and the stress of an already anxious student.

I challenge my colleagues in the post-secondary education world to eliminate all mandatory fees. Just be honest: Roll them into the stated tuition. The new model would allow students more transparency in their bills, helping them better identify their true expected out-of-pocket costs before they register.

A recent Omaha World-Herald article reported that some institutions demand upwards of $2,000 per year in student fees. And fees, much like tuition, continue to go up. Universities continue to add fees in order to fund new initiatives or a particular budget.

However, there are alternatives. If there is a new initiative or a particular budget that will be ongoing, charge the money upfront in the tuition and explain why the cost is going up.

Eliminating all fees seems like a simple response to such a complex problem. College of St. Mary got rid of all student fees in 2013. We did not eliminate any programs, and our budgets for particular areas remained intact. The change: Prospective students now know up front what the cost is for participating in our educational environment. We had significant course fees (nursing clinical experiences, science labs, art, etc.), and it caused confusion if a student added a course after their first registration bill was received. Some students had to borrow more due to such a change.

Getting rid of fees was consistent with our values of integrity and transparency. Eliminating the confusion made the conversations with the financial aid office much more straightforward and reduced the stress on the student.

Over the past several years, College of St. Mary has been working to tear down major barriers for student success by creating transparency that empowers students to clearly plan for educational goals. The next steps in combating the student loan debt crisis are expanding financial literacy programming and collaborating with faculty to try and reduce textbook costs.

It is my firm belief that eliminating unnecessary fees and making costs more transparent is the right thing to do for students and their families and can make fiscal sense for all universities.

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