Dave Matthews

Miami University has the highest general fee of any public four-year institution in Ohio, and with prices continuing to climb during the past three years, some students are wondering where their $1,722 goes every year.

“(The general fee) is a lot of money and I’m already out-of-state, I wish it wasn’t that high,” first-year Caitlyn Dobner said.

According to Miami’s vice president for finance and business services David Creamer, the general fee (oftentimes referred to as the “student fee”) is a fund each Miami student pays that goes toward student life. This is opposed to classroom instruction costs, which is covered by tuition.

In fiscal year 2009, Oxford campus students each paid $1,722 toward the fee on top of their tuition and other expenses, according to the Office of the Bursar Web site.

Of the total $28.3 million raised from general fees in FY2009, about half went toward Intercollegiate Athletics, 17.5 percent toward the Recreational Sports Center (RSC), 9 percent toward Goggin Ice Arena, 5.3 percent toward Student Health Services, and 3.2 percent each for Student Organizations and the Shriver Center, according to the Oxford campus general fees summary from the controller’s office. Many other programs, including Parking Services and the Lecture and Artist Series, also receive funds from the general fee.

Creamer said that once his office doles out the funds from the general fee, it is up to the individual departments to set their own budget and determine what they do with the money.

“(Finance and business services) put together the plan for the budget, the funds tend to get managed by the areas that oversee these activities,” he said.

The area that receives the most money from the general fee is the athletic department, overseen in part by Deputy Director for Athletics Jason Lener.

Lener said that athletics spends most of its budget on scholarships for student athletes, operating budgets for different teams and compensation for coaches and staff.

In addition to the student fee, athletics also generates revenue through ticket sales, alumni gifts, sponsorships and by being a part of the Mid American Conference (MAC) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

After preparing a budget that speculates expenditures with expected revenue, the athletics department receives their share of the general fee from the university so that they can operate under a balanced budget.

According to the university controller’s office, Miami’s athletics generated $4.3 million in revenue, and received $13.1 million in general fee support in fiscal year 2008. Despite the overwhelming support from Miami, Lener said it is commonplace for most university athletics departments to rely on university support.

“There are very few schools in the country that are self-sustaining,” he said. “The (MAC) and a lot of other mid-major schools depend very heavily on institutional support to run their athletic department … (the self-sustaining athletic departments) are the schools that have the 100,000 seat stadiums, that charge $65 a ticket, that sell out every game, that go to bowl games … there are very few of them in the country.”

In Lener’s mind, the publicity Miami can receive in the form of broadcasted sporting events is worth the support athletics receives from the school.

“The athletic department does things few departments can,” he said. “We can go on national television at primetime for three and a half hours, that’s advertising for Miami that would otherwise be too expensive.”

Creamer added that Miami’s search for a new head football coach will not, by itself, increase the general fee that students pay during the next fiscal year.

So who determines where the money goes?

Creamer said that his office, while preparing the university budget, receives recommendations from different areas of the university, and then consults with President David Hodge’s cabinet and Miami’s Fiscal Priorities Committee as an “informal courtesy” before going to the Board of Trustees for budget approval. Each year, areas have their general fee funds shuffled around.

For example, Miami’s Equestrian Center received $173,811 from the general fee in fiscal year 2007 and has yet to receive funding from the fee since.

Although it has not happened recently, Miami has faced heat from groups in the past to whom they allocate student fee dollars.

Miami was sued by multiple Christian student groups in the fall of 1998 for using student fee dollars to fund groups they ideologically opposed, while excluding religious and political organizations.

“The heart of the complaint is that students should have the right not to support groups they disagree with. If citizens had to give tax dollars to the Christian Coalition … it would be wrong,” former Miami student Russ Johnson, president of one of the suing groups, as quoted by Salon.com.

The lawsuit ended up being settled out of court in September 2001, according to the Student Press Law Center.

Although he has never encountered anything as drastic as a lawsuit, Creamer emphasized that his office aims to please the greatest number of students when appropriating the general fee.

“New initiatives tend to get more scrutiny, a lot of times it comes down to student votes,” Creamer said. “At some point in time there was a referendum (and all student fee dollars) were supported by the students, I believe that was the case with the (RSC).”

First-year Raven Jones thinks that old referendums should receive less money from students. She said money should go toward efforts that directly apply to all students, like textbook prices.

“I don’t go to the (RSC) that much,” she said. “I know (the administration doesn’t) totally control it, but I wish more of the money went toward lowering book prices.”

Why does the student fee increase every year?

Despite the economic downturn during the past few years, Miami’s general fee has risen over at least the past three years.

University Controller Dale Hinrichs said universal costs such as energy, staff salaries and compensation that rise each year affect the cost of the general fee, along with other factors such as the two-year in-state tuition freeze enacted by Governor Strickland’s administration in fall 2007.

Creamer, who has been at Miami since June since arriving from Kent State University, added that Miami’s relatively low enrollment compared to other in-state institutions, as well as previous budget decisions made by past Miami administrations also led to the higher price per student.

Fees may see a break from its rising trend, as Creamer hinted that students may see a lower general fee during the next fiscal year as his office prepares the budget.

“There’s no absolute assurance yet, but if I had to guess, we’re not going to see (the general fee) go up next year,” he said. “There is a possibility it may actually decline … it is largely because of the other issues that we’ve been trying to manage, the economic situation and other things that negatively affect the budget will likely translate into a slowing of the growth in the general fee.”

However, Creamer said the possible expiration of the Ohio in-state tuition freeze next year, along with a six-percent tuition increase for out-of-state students approved by Miami’s Board of Trustees in February, would add to Miami’s instructional costs.

In order to increase its affordability, Miami could seek more state support.

In November, the 10-campus-wide University of California system attempted to avoid raising its student fee by petitioning the California Legislature for an additional $640 million this year to avoid increasing tuition and student fees.

Creamer said that although Miami regularly lobbies for state support, a scenario similar to the University of California system would be doubtful in Ohio, a state that is looking at a $7 billion deficit, its largest ever.

“I think this is going to be very difficult for (the state of Ohio) to continue (generating financial support for Ohio public schools) given some of the financial issues they’re facing,” he said.

For some students, regardless of how much the general fee costs in the future, they hope that the money goes toward a diverse range of interests, not just five dominant fixtures in the budget.

“I think it could be better spread out, but I’m happy with student life here,” first-year Jon Kovach said.

First-year Luke Weymer agreed.

“I think the general fee is a little high, most of the things like transportation … I guarantee could be cut down,” he said. “Most students don’t realize is coming out of their pocket.”