By Katy Murphy
Higher Education Reporter, Bay Area News Group
Freezing California's public college tuition in 2012 after years of steep hikes quieted a deafening howl from debt-burdened students and their parents. But it didn't stop some of the state's universities from rapidly raising campus fees, millions of dollars that pay for everything from health services to laboratory equipment.
San Jose State, whose total campus fees are the second highest in the system and 53 percent higher than average, will raise them again this fall to a total of about $2,000 a year -- on top of the $5,472 students pay in CSU tuition.
UC Berkeley students are to vote this spring on a new $102-a-year technology fee. And by this fall, 11 of the 23 CSU campuses will charge a "student success fee," which in some cases cover such basic costs as classes and faculty salaries.
Students protested the success fees at last month's CSU trustees meeting, and some San Jose students are wondering where theirs went -- $19 million this year alone. Next year, the campus's success fee, $790, will be CSU's highest.
So far, the changes San Jose State promised two years ago -- classrooms outfitted with the latest technology and more academic support -- haven't materialized, some students say. A closer look at the campus budget shows it gave nearly 40 percent of the success fees to athletics, a use hardly mentioned in the spending priorities presented to students in 2012.
Under CSU rules, campuses can set new fees by holding a student referendum, as the chancellor's office recommends. Or they can do what San Jose State administrators did: Consult with student groups to consider their opinion in the decision but make the final call themselves.
"It's a massive amount of money," said Mykel Jeffrey, who serves on San Jose State's student government and in the statewide California State Student Association. "We do have the highest fee, and we don't see the progress."
The student success fees at San Jose State, CSU East Bay and many other campuses came about in the dark days of the state budget crisis, before California voters approved the Proposition 30 tax initiative that helped to stabilize public schools and universities after years of deep budget cuts.
After voters approved the tax in November 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown -- the initiative's champion -- implored colleges to keep their costs in check in exchange for steady increases in state funding. Some are doing just that. San Francisco State and CSU East Bay have total campus fees below the system's average, and CSU East Bay has so far kept its student success fee at $240 a year, even though the state chancellor's office authorized more.
But others, such as San Jose State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo -- which has the highest total campus fees in the system, at $3,250 -- have raised their fees as originally planned. San Jose State will boost its success fee -- one of several fees it now charges students -- to $790. San Diego State and CSU Fullerton will make students pay success fees for the first time this fall.
To those who study university tuition and spending, the growing cost borne by students comes as no surprise. When tuition is capped, colleges and universities will find a way around it, said Richard Vedder, an economist who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
"It's just a matter of time before they start charging for the toilets in the universities," he said.
San Jose State's fee covers basic classroom costs, such as lab fees, and improved academic technology and advising, said Pat Lopes Harris, a spokeswoman for San Jose State.
Harris said the money is needed because state funding, "even after the passage of Proposition 30, (remains) hundreds of millions of dollars below pre-recession levels."
The California State Student Association agrees that campuses don't have enough funding. In some cases, campus fees that once paid for extra programs and services are now going to the basics, said Meredith Turner, the association's director of government relations.
But, she said, colleges need to be clear about how they are spending the success fees, and student leaders should be spearheading the discussion about the funds -- and whether they should be charged at all. "Our main concern is that students need to be at the forefront of these issues," Turner said.
But since the fee took effect, San Jose State students have been left out of the discussion altogether, Jeffrey said. Although initially excited about the technology upgrades and other improvements promised when the Student Success, Excellence and Technology Fee was proposed, he said he was dismayed to see how much of the money was going to the school's athletics department -- $7.5 million this year.
When San Jose State pitched the fee to student groups, a process Jeffrey describes as rushed, athletics appeared only once, in the proposal's final two words -- "including athletics."
Lopes Harris explained that athletics received student fee money under an old charge that was rolled into the new fee. Still, the intercollegiate athletics department was to get nearly $1.8 million more from students this year than it did under the old fee, according to the campus budget.
Next year, when San Jose State's student success fee jumps by 25 percent, athletics could get even more. "Clearly the administration has prioritized sports over education," said Diana Crumedy, a student activist who wants the fee reduced or repealed.
The money should be used to improve such things as the campus's Internet service, she said, which she describes as "the worst, spottiest and most unpredictable ever."
"In the Silicon Valley, of all places, it's almost embarrassing," she said.
Students will hold an April 9 forum about the fee, she said.
CSU East Bay in Hayward considered raising its fee last spring, but decided not to. "We were really concerned about trying to keep the costs down for our students," said Susan Opp, the campus's associate vice president for academic affairs and graduate studies.
Before raising the fee, she added, "We want to be able to demonstrate that we're making good use of the student money."