Fee hike is ill-considered, pernicious and unneeded
The graph nearby shows that inflation-adjusted undergraduate general fees at Nevada universities have nearly doubled in recent years, while the incomes of Nevadans who pay them have actually declined slightly.
Our colleges also charge special fees that, as a group, have increased at even faster rates. While opposing general fee increases in recent years, I’ve supported some reasonable special-fee increases. However, one fee change adopted by Nevada regents Friday shows that some increases are unnecessary, promoted disingenuously and adopted without due consideration.
UNLV currently charges $1 per credit-hour, plus other fees, for its Academic Success Center (ASC), mainly a tutoring service used by roughly one-third of the students but paid for by all. UNLV proposed to change the main fee next year to $25 per student for each semester, regardless of how many credit-hours a student takes.
So, a student taking a 15-hour standard full-time load would pay 67 percent more, while a working student carrying an eight-hour half-time load would face a 212 percent hike. In either case, the average student is unlikely to use the service.
Mark Ciavola, undergraduate student body president, revealed that a campus-wide fees committee convened by UNLV President Neal Smatresk opposed this increase and many others. So, Smatresk (who is leaving UNLV) disbanded the committee and forwarded his proposals. Previously, Smatresk disbanded committees for finding a graduation speaker, new provost and new athletic director, and took unilateral action.
Smatresk said that student retention is the main purpose of the ASC and that 94 percent of students who use its services stayed at UNLV. He claimed that it required the revenue increase that the ASC dean estimated at 100 percent and committee workpapers show will exceed 119 percent.
The dean said spending increases were required because students were being turned away due to excess demand. However, a student representative called ASC during the regents’ meeting to ask whether students are turned away, and he received an emphatic response that they are not.
Ciavola also noted that ASC has a reserve balance that exceeds its annual spending and that filling all vacant ASC positions would cost about half of that reserve. Ironically, considering the high claimed retention rates, one vacant position is the Retention Specialist. (However, ASC plans to increase one administrator’s pay 20 percent.)
In sum, I noted, the facts do not support any increase. The retention rate cannot be significantly improved from 94%, yet UNLV proposed to roughly double spending on ASC. If retention were, say, 60 percent with full staffing and students being turned away, then a moderate increase might be reasonable — but not a doubling.
Further, if a modest spending increase were appropriate, then UNLV should test the effect of increased spending on retention rates by funding it from the ample reserves. If the test produced good results, then fees could be increased and a reasonable reserve would remain; if not, no fee increase would need to be rolled back.
Ultimately, Regents Andrea Anderson and Allison Stephens joined me in opposing the increase, while nine others said nothing and rubber-stamped it. (One was absent.)
There is, however, some hope for the future. In contrast to this sorry performance of UNLV’s administration and the regents, Ciavola’s student government has cut its own salaries and spending and the fees it charges students, who are getting great service at bargain rates.
Ron Knecht is an economist, law school graduate and Nevada higher education regent.