The California state auditor thinks Cal Poly students should vote for every mandatory campus fee, that mandatory fees should not pay for faculty or labs and that the state should fund the California State University (CSU) better.

Cal Poly’s mandatory fees have increased from $2,439 to $4,201 since 2012 and have begun to fund core functions of Cal Poly’s education, the auditor wrote in a 62-page audit released this month. The auditor is worried growing reliance on fees will disadvantage low-income students who do not get financial aid to cover campus fees – and that the fee approval process does not have appropriate oversight by the legislature or the central CSU system.

University President Jeffrey Armstrong was not immediately available for an interview, but in a spring 2019 interview with Mustang News, he said the college-based fees — which add $1,230 yearly to student costs — saved Cal Poly’s education.

“Increased enrollment from out-of-state students, along with the 2012 student success fee, donor campaigns and the college-based fee, are what has carried Cal Poly through a 2011 $21 billion budget reduction from the state,” Armstrong said. “We’d have been in a different place [if those fees were not enacted]. You may have decided not to come here.” 

The auditor did not argue that the fees were wasteful. However, the report said relaxed oversight from the CSU Chancellor’s Office and vaguely written CSU fee policy allowed fees to increase without enough student input or administrative oversight. The report also says continued reliance on campus fees for core educational funding confuses the legislators and the governing board of trustees when deciding to fund the CSU system or increase tuition.

The Chancellor’s Office released a letter included in the audit saying they keep student costs to a minimum and that the recommendations in the report would “undermine the current statutory authority of the Board of Trustees provided in the California Education Code.”

Cal Poly increased campus mandatory fees three times during the period the auditor viewed: in 2012 for the $780 student success fee, which a board of majority students votes to allocate; the health services fee in 2018, to lower wait lines at the Health Center; and the $840 opportunity fee in 2019, which is paid by out-of-state students to provide financial aid to low-income California residents.

Armstrong also proposed increases to the college-based fees and student-union fees but decided not to implement the increases after students voted against them. The student votes were only advisory, and at Chico State, where students voted three times against three fees, the president overrode the student votes to implement the fees anyway. 

Auditor disliked fee approval process

The auditor found fault with “alternative consultation” in the CSU’s 2015 fee policy, which allows Armstrong and other CSU presidents to request fee approval from the chancellor as long as they engage students in either an advisory vote or an “appropriate and meaningful consultation,” a description the auditor said was too vague.

During the discussion around the Opportunity Grant and Fee, feedback took place over 38 days — which the ASI Board of Directors protested in a resolution as being too short a period to solicit student feedback.

The policy also asks for an advisory committee to approve or disapprove of fees before the president makes the decision to enact them, a consultation which did not happen in any of the five proposed fees, the audit reported and the campus spokesman confirmed. The spokesman said the consultation did not happen because Cal Poly’s policies were not in line with the CSU’s, even though consultation with the committee has been in CSU policies since at least 1996.

“The president shall consult the committee before adjusting any fee and before requesting the chancellor to establish a new fee including a consolidation of existing fees,” the 1996 fee policy reads.

“There really wasn’t anything we did to provide a sweeping recommendation as an entire committee,” Cal Poly alumnus and 2018-2020 committee member Jake Watkins said. “As an entire committee we really didn’t have the ability to get anything to the president’s office. If we’re going to talk about the opportunity fee specifically, that was something that had already been decided upon with the implementation of it as what was up for public comment.”

The committee did have some activity, but it did not provide final recommendations.

“As a member of the CFAC, I can say that there is consultation with the Cal Poly administration and all of the expenditures are available to the campus community,” English professor Dustin Stegner wrote in an email, directing Mustang News to the archived minutes and agenda available online. 

The policy also allows the president to waive the advisory student vote if they think “it will not allow for the best measure of student opinion,” which is what happened in the health services and opportunity fees. The previous 2011 policy is similar, but says a vote is “preferred” rather than expected.  The 2008 policy established a referendum is required unless the president convinces the committee that alternative consultation is better. The 1996 policy says a student vote is required but may be waived if the president explains to the chancellor why alternative consultation would be better, and it gives presidents the ability to impose individual campus fees. Another 1981 policy required an advisory referendum for certain fee increases above $10 ($28 adjusted for inflation.)

In the last 40 years, advisory student votes went from required for fee increases more than $28, to being waived if the president can convince the chancellor it would be better, to then being waived if the president can convince a committee. ASI-handled fees, like the Student Success Fee, require a vote and do not have alternative consultation as an option.

Armstrong pursued alternative consultation instead of an advisory vote for the Health Center fee because some students come into Cal Poly with healthcare, Cal Poly alumnus and former ASI Board of Directors Representative Mitchell Collins said, meaning that not all students will use the service. The auditor disagreed with this justification as well as with another from San Diego State, claiming both are “based on the idea that only a subset of students should be allowed to provide substantive input.”

Previous fee policies were scattered into a number of individual categories, but one 1982 policy established systemwide fees at $150 ($402) per year. A 1981 policy extended the chancellor’s authority to establish and increase fees greater than $25 ($71) for optional materials or facilities used with courses.

The Cal State website intentionally removed archived fee policies in October right after the audit was requested.

Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath’s letter requesting the audit was dated June 13, 2019. The internet archive machine the Wayback Machine shows most of the previously archived campus fee policies disappearing in June. The URLs that used to hold old documents now redirect to a database that does not hold outdated policies.

Auditor’s concerns are not new in the CSU

“It (a $1 yearly student fee to support Kennedy Library) sets a very dangerous precedent,” ASI executive assistant Gabe Joint said in 1991, according to the student paper. “If ASI starts funding the library, it sends a message to the state that we want to start funding state supported activities.” 

“The state needs to act responsibly,” computer science junior Margaret Ames also said. “Students are willing to kick in money; the state should be too.”

The state has continually disinvested from the CSU system since the 1980’s, with a large decrease in support since 2001, the Public Policy Institute of California reported.

In 1975, the state invested $11,678 per student in the CSU system, adjusted for inflation; in 1985, $12,259; in 2000, $12,350; in 2010, $8,962 and in 2017, $9,387. State funding was decreasing even before the market crash.

When the 2008 recession hit the CSU system, it increased tuition. Individual campuses began looking for additional funding revenue through campus fees.

Combined tuition and state funding per-student is greater now than before the market crash, the auditor reported. The auditor did not specify that those combined funds are back to pre-2000 levels.

The 1991 library increase came with another $11 yearly fee increase to keep five athletic teams and help athletics move to Division 1 standing. 

In 2002, students voted in $375-$600 quarterly college-based fees to increase course offerings in departments. At the time, students paid $721 for fees, according to a March 15 Cal Poly press release.

In 2009, faculty supported a California gas tax bill that would have given the CSU system $600 million to overcome a $584 million budget deficit. 

“If [the tax] were in existence now, maybe we wouldn’t be talking about a 30 percent [student] fee increase,” Cal State Fullerton and faculty union professor Lillian Taiz said. 

The bill failed. Later in 2009, CSU Chancellor Charles Reed denied an increase in college based fees, which students voted in favor of. The ASI President at the time said the term “state supported” in regards to Cal Poly should be placed in quotations. 

“We’ve been denied our desire to keep our education at the same level,” ASI President Kelly Griggs said, according to the student paper.

Students voted in a fee to pay for the new recreation center in 2008.

Recent fees

The 2012 student success fee was the first fee in the time period the auditor examined. It raised fees $260 per quarter, $1040 per year. Fifty-seven percent of students voted in favor of it. The student success fee is allocated by a committee with majority students, which decided in 2019 to give $1 million to student academic services, $577 to campus health workers, $463 to the disability resource center and other amounts to dean of students, the veterans success center, club supports and the cross cultural centers.

In 2016, students voted down a $199 per-quarter University Union fee in an advisory vote. Armstrong followed by not implementing the fee, even though he could have.

In 2018, Armstrong followed an alternative consultation process to see if he should implement a $277 yearly health fee to reduce wait times at the health center. Student government approved it, and Armstrong implemented it.

Recommendations

The auditor recommended the legislature demand a review of mandatory fee expenditures and commission a report on how much was spent on the CSU’s core functions, that the legislature find other funding for those core functions and that the legislature should prohibit CSU campuses from charging mandatory fees.

The auditor also recommended the Chancellor’s Office revise its fee policy to require supporting documentation for new or increasing fees — including the need and calculation for the fee amount — and increase the rigor of its fee review.

“I think [removing mandatory fees] sounds nice in a perfect world, but if you’re not getting the funding from the CSU, you’re going to lose a lot of professors,” Cal Poly alumnus and former ASI Board of Directors Representative Mitchell Collins said, who was around for both the health fee and the opportunity fee. “What’ll happen is when a big cut comes in and they want to cut the CSU, all of that funding is going to be professors.”

Collins said a group of ASI students tried to sit down with administrators to clarify and improve the alternative consultation process after the 38 days of the opportunity fee alternative consultation, but he was not sure what the result was. There are no requirements or criteria on what percentage of student feedback constitutes alternative consultation, and Collins remembered the Health Center fee outreach got little response. 

Former ASI President Riley Nilsen could not be reached, and current ASI President and former member of the Campus Fee Advisory Committee Mark Borges did not reply when asked for comment.

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