The subject of fees came up once again at the WCC Board of Trustees Spring Retreat. You could forgive someone for believing that a “technology fee” goes to pay for technology. Or that a facilities fee goes to pay for the facilities. Truthfully, the Washtenaw County taxpayers provide enough cash every year to pay for both the technology and the facilities at WCC. However, poor spending choices by the Administration and lax oversight by the Board of Trustees all but ensure that any new “fees” will simply secure more of the same.
If you look at fees, um, and this chart is comparable to last year, so these are the fees that are applied on a kind of across the board basis, so they’re not specific course fees. And so this information is – this is – it takes me a lot of digging. I have to go into each website and kind of find their fees, and they’re not always as apparent to find, so um, this is my best calculation of fees from each of these institutions that are applied across the board. Of course, for Washtenaw, we have just one fee. It’s our technology enrollment fee of $10 per credit hour. Uh, the average is $31, and we’re at $10. I think it also is noteworthy that about 11 institutions have a separate facilities fee that averages around nine dollars. And maybe that would be noteworthy for discussion in a future year. Certainly not for this year, but as we look at our fee structure – that is very, very competitive relative to our peers.
—WCC CFO Bill Johnson, April 6, 2021
Call it what you like, a $10 fee is just a cash grab
Washtenaw Community College has one $10 per credit hour fee. For a full-time student enrolled in 15 credit hours, the “technology fee” amounts to a $150 per semester cash grab. The “technology fee” doesn’t go to defray the cost of technology. It’s just money. In the 2018-2019 academic year, for example, students enrolled in 242,010 credit hours. The “technology fee” generated $2.42M, deposited directly into the General Fund. The proceeds from the “technology fee” could have fully funded any of the following line items:
- The IT buyout ($2.3M)
- Community Services ($2.184M)
- Executive Management ($2.14M)
- Utilities ($2.090M)
- Deferred maintenance ($2M)
- Equipment ($1.98M)
- Distance Learning ($1.875M) and Continuing Education ($625,000)
- Scholarships ($1.67M)
- Health and Fitness Center debt retirement ($1.22M), Repair and Maintenance ($750,000), and Furniture ($200,000)
WCC CFO Bill Johnson is quick to point out that WCC has the lowest fees of all community colleges in Michigan. He fails to point out that WCC has the highest property tax appropriation as a percentage of total revenue of any Michigan community college.
So, why is Johnson putting in a good word for a new fee? (In some future year, of course!) And why aren’t any of the Trustees putting in a good word for actual fiscal responsibility? You know, the kind that keeps expenses low to ensure sufficient financing for the mission? Simply put, raising tuition by $1 or $2 per credit hour will net a few hundred thousand dollars, maybe. Larding on a $10 fee will snatch millions.
Facilities Fee discussion will not go away
The trouble with a “facilities fee” or a “parking fee” or a “convenience fee” is that the fee goes into the General Fund. The Trustees do not require the Administration to spend the proceeds only on the specified expense. They simply authorize a cash grab from the students and justify it by saying that WCC’s fees are lower than other community college’s fees.
Other community colleges charge higher fees because they receive a lower property tax assessment than WCC does. They charge higher fees because they receive a lower state appropriation than WCC does. Larding on another fee will simply make it easier for the WCC Administration to continue spending without consequences.
A Board that exercised authentic oversight would tear apart the institution’s financials to identify waste and unnecessary spending. It would tightly control the size of the Administration and insist upon protecting the County’s investment in education. It would not spend millions of dollars on consultants and the use of operating funds to pay debts. And it would look at tuition increases and fees as a last resort to support the institution itself, rather than a new line-of-credit to underwrite the careless spending habits of an Administration with no meaningful stake in Washtenaw County.
WCC does not need a new fee. It needs better fiscal management and more Board oversight. I once overheard a driving instructor tersely counsel a student, “Keep your hands on the wheel or get your ass out of the driver’s seat.”
That also seems like fitting advice for the WCC Board of Trustees.
Photo Credit: Jim Hickcox , via Flickr