College Fees: Sticker Shock for Georgia Families

By Lee Brewer Jones

Lee Brewer Jones

With revenue and spending contingent on the new tax law, the uncertain future of PeachCare funding (Georgia’s CHIP), and the possibility Georgia may spend on tax incentives aimed at luring Amazon’s new headquarters, it’s no surprise Governor Nathan Deal’s FY 2019 budget of $26 billion has been described as “very fluid.”

In education, state budget “austerity cuts” during the Great Recession a decade ago resulted in an Institutional Fee, “a general-purchase fee charged system wide by the University System Board of Regents at all ‘teaching’ institutions.” The University of Georgia notes that the purpose of the fee, implemented in 2009, was “to ensure continued academic excellence during times of reduction in state funding.”

In 2009, to be sure, Georgia and the nation experienced “a time of serious economic downturn” logically accompanied by state budget cuts.  Curiously, however, “no timetable has been announced as to when this fee will conclude,” despite the recovery and the Dow Jones Industrial Average more than tripling since 2009.

How much is this fee, and what does it pay for? UGA declares, “Institutional fees are available to support any level of operations that would be appropriate for any educational and general fund source.”  The funds “allow the University to avoid increased class sizes, proactively address availability in high-demand courses, and enhance academic advising and research opportunities for our students.” 

It would seem fair to say, then, that the fee constitutes an academic cost of attending a University System of Georgia school. Students at all Georgia’s public research universities pay at least $450 per semester. At UGA’s Athens campus, other mandatory fees include $114 for technology, $116 for transportation Fee and $199 for the Health Center. 

A full-time Athens student pays a whopping $1,133 in fees, none of it covered by the state’s vaunted Hope Scholarship. 

Even after a decade, the Institutional Fee comes as a shock to some new college students and parents. In 2012, when my oldest son enrolled at UGA, his former classmate’s parents had recently undergone financial hardships. The student had risen to meet creatively with a variety of scholarships, including one from the local power company. 

The student had earned a Zell Miller Scholarship, Georgia’s “merit-based scholarship that provides full tuition at a postsecondary institution.” (Georgia’s “regular” Hope Scholarship provides assistance toward the cost of tuition.)

His parents were prepared for tuition and room and board, and allotted some money for fees; they seemed among the more knowledgeable parents at orientation. Nevertheless, when the cheerful orientation leader disclosed the estimated $2,000 per year in fees, including $450 per semester for the Institutional Fee, his mother blanched visibly. 

Not everyone pays $450 per semester ($3,600 total, assuming on-time graduation and no fee increases). At my teaching institution, Georgia State University Perimeter College, the Institutional Fee for students taking five or more credit hours runs $200 per semester; total fees reach a maximum of $540. At Georgia State’s Downtown campus, however, it totals $1,064, including the $404 Institutional Fee.

Downtown, 12 or more hours per semester is the undergraduate norm. A Perimeter College student’s typical load may be five hours while working full time and bringing up a family.

This semester, my daughter is taking five hours, and she has earned the Hope Scholarship. My family pays about 20 percent of her tuition – plus fees. Tuition, excluding Hope, is $463.35. Total fees run $484.  Even with the Zell Miller Scholarship, her fees would cost more than the “full tuition” ride. 

Fortunately, we can afford our share of tuition and fees. But consider the hardship for a first-generation college student, perhaps a single parent and public transportation-dependent. 

College fees have become a shell game that allows colleges to shift academic (that is, teaching) costs to fees that the Hope Scholarship does not cover. Georgia is under no obligation to cover all the educational costs nor even all the academic costs of any students, but the state should re-examine this unfair and disingenuous attempt to hide some academic increases in expensive fees.   

Lee Brewer Jones, Associate Professor of English at Georgia State University Perimeter College, wrote this commentary for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (February 2, 2018). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.   

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