An opt-out system for fees would undermine the richness of college student organizations

Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

Recently, Republican politicians such as Minnesota State Representative Drew Christiansen, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and others have toyed with the idea of allowing college students to opt out of a portion of their fees that ordinarily goes toward funding student-run organizations. Among the main reasons cited were concerns about rising student fees and the problem of students being required to finance clubs whose causes they don’t support or benefit from, such as an atheist being forced to fund religious clubs, for example.

On the surface, any opportunity to save money is certainly tempting for students, especially since tuition prices in the U.S. have continually grown over the past few decades and the spectre of student loan debt is an omnipresent existential threat to most students. But while the proposal seems logical on its surface, the funding for student organizations should be among the last expenses that lawmakers target for enabling financial freedom. Allowing students to opt out of paying fees supporting student organizations risks preventing many organizations from providing resources and holding events for students, and will unfairly discriminate against smaller groups, especially ones geared toward representing and providing for marginalized communities.

This policy would be far more harmful than helpful if implemented at any university. To better understand why, consider the effects of a policy if it were implemented here at UCR.

While an opt-out system may appear to be of help for students struggling to stay afloat financially, student organizations must flourish as a cornerstone of the college experience. The value that they offer to students is evident enough to see that they should not be sacrificed as a kind of golden goose. Student-run clubs provide an outlet for students to de-stress, network and pursue interests in a supportive group environment, especially interests which may not be covered by classes that the university offers. Many also provide a benefit to the public via volunteer work, and others facilitate political activism and advocacy within local communities which may not receive the attention or help they need otherwise.

Maintaining a healthy diversity of student organizations is key for helping all of UCR’s students grow and spend time between classes, enriching themselves in a community of like-minded peers, not to mention getting them started on the track to supporting and leading their communities. That UCR has over 500 organizations registered on HighlanderLink is a testament to that. If an opt-out policy were implemented here, many students would undoubtedly choose to prioritize their finances and opt out, and this could strangle ASUCR’s ability to fund clubs.

Some organizations might be able to persist without the funds provided by ASUCR, and others could scrape by through collecting dues, fundraising or fielding donations (such as if they are a local chapter of a national organization), but this puts additional burdens on club members, reduces their ability to host events and can establish barriers to entry for new clubs or clubs that only appeal to a smaller demographic. Just because a given student may not be able to participate in or benefit from every club on campus doesn’t give them the right to pull out the necessary support for other clubs. One of the main reasons that UCR can give a platform to so many clubs that represent a myriad of interests in the first place is precisely that students are compelled to pay.

Affordability is, with good reason, a chief concern for all college students, because on top of their tuition payments, students must also juggle worries about various expenses, from food to school supplies to living costs. But at UCR, according to the Office of the Registrar, support for clubs comes from the UCR Student Services Fee, which is six dollars per quarter, and the Associated Students (ASUCR) Fee, slightly higher at $12.50 per quarter, and so students would save a comparatively small amount of money if they had the option to opt out of these fees.

Admittedly, having the freedom to opt out of certain payments in general could be massively helpful to university students. Considering that the average graduate in 2016 walked down the aisle with over $37,000 in student loan debt, it’s no surprise that students and policy-makers alike will want to cut expenses wherever they can and recoil when those fees increase.

At UCR, for example, many students wisely take advantage of existing opportunities for reduced fees, such as waiving out of the Student Health Insurance Program, which ordinarily gouges wallets for $585 per quarter, or by claiming the fee reductions available to student employees and part-time students. But while a certain degree of flexibility in what students pay is reasonable, some fees must be non-negotiable. Universities are justified in lumping those payments in along the standard tuition, because the value gained by students and local communities from the programs funded by those fees is much too high to give up.

Going after fees that support student-run clubs in the name of affordability and not compelling students to fund clubs that they don’t agree with or benefit from is an understandable but shortsighted endeavor. It also fails to take into account that the relatively small fees that students pay are investments in groups that help students sharpen their skills as leaders and give back to communities; this small payment yields a far greater return. Not only that, an opt-out policy would inevitably lead to disparity in the amount of money that goes to clubs, and smaller, more niche organizations will be unfairly discriminated against. Ultimately, the benefits of this proposed opt-out policy would be of very little use to the students it intends to help, and thus must not be made an option in the first place.

Correction (24 Nov. 2017, 7:35 AM): Support for clubs also comes from the Associated Students (ASUCR) Fee, which is $12.50 per quarter. The text has been updated to reflect this.

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