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ND college students lobby to keep fees in check

BISMARCK -- Representatives speaking on behalf of the 48,000 students in the North Dakota University System would like to see limits to increases in mandatory student fees, an area where colleges have been criticized for lack of oversight.

"Fees are the one part of what students pay to go to school they get most upset about," University of North Dakota junior Johan Mahlum said during a legislative hearing Wednesday. "You want tuition to be roughly what you are going to be paying for school, but when fees get tacked on top of that, people get upset."

The Legislature set limits to fee increases during the 2011 legislative session, but that is set to expire June 30 of this year. The subject of Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Education Committee was Senate Bill 2094, which would extend those limits indefinitely.

The bill would ensure mandatory fees would not increase from one academic year to the next by more than 1 percent of the latest undergraduate tuition rate at the institution.

Laura Glatt, the University System's vice chancellor for administrative affairs, said UND students are currently paying $5,938 for tuition plus an additional $1,316 in fees during the 2012-13 academic year. If tuition stays the same, a 1-percent limit would keep a student fee increase to $59. Likewise, North Dakota State University is paying $6,135, plus $1,098, so fees could go up $61 next year.

"A limit would allow students to better predict the cost of a college education and help them make plans to finance their education," said Jody Ferris, a senior at Dickinson State University and lobbyist for the North Dakota Student Association.

Students at all 11 North Dakota system schools pay five mandatory fees each semester: Student government, NDSA, technology, ConnectND, the system's administrative software, and a college fee for various things like athletics and placement services, which benefit the entire student population.

Student fees became a hot topic last spring when an audit for the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee found that Dickinson State had collected nearly $2 million in student fees for unspecified purposes.

Another 82-page report by the state auditor's office later found both the UND and North Dakota State University had "inappropriately" spent some of the millions of dollars they take in each year through student fees.

A "transcript fee" at UND provided $7,600 toward new blinds and furniture, and NDSU paid $20,000 to an employee through a separation agreement using program fees to cover the expense.

Mahlum, also a lobbyist for NDSA, said the report made a hot topic out of reforming mandatory fees and making them more transparent.

The bill also allows for exemptions under extraordinary circumstances and student demand through a campus-wide student election or action by the school's student governing board -- a clause that was included in the 2011 legislation.

The exemption clause was a large focal point of the Wednesday morning discussion on whether the local student governing boards should have complete authority over the exemptions, or if the student body should have the opportunity to vote on an increase if one is needed.

Committee member Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, a former student government vice president at UND, mentioned the idea because she has seen how easily fees can increase with little opposition by students due to apathy, allowing for a quick vote by the Student Government Association.

"As the vice president, I felt it was easy to convince a student government that they were making good choices," she said. "My concern is how easy it is to convince 25 senators than the student body."

Robert Lauf, a sophomore economics major at North Dakota State University, and member of the NDSU student government, told the committee it would be difficult to take it to a campuswide vote since the homecoming court receives more votes than student government issues.

Remedies to that problem that were discussed include setting a minimum percentage of student-voter turnout to increase fees. If the minimum is not met, the decision could be deferred to student government or throw out completely.

Rep. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks, said the decision should be left up to each individual campus, "but regardless of how the bills end up, any process needs to be student driven," the former UND student government president said.