The University released a line-by-line breakdown of the student life fee for Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science last week, following a semester-long student push to convince administrators to make the breakdown public.
The largest portion of the $1,396 fee—which is set by the central administration each year—is the $390 that goes to the athletic department. The next-highest amount goes to Columbia University Information Technology, which gets $376, followed by a $220 “house fee,” a $216 student activities fee, $66 for the Center for Career Education, $64 for printing, and $62 for Lerner Hall. There is also a $2 “cross-cutting multi-school activities fee.”
Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger sent the breakdown to representatives from the Columbia College Student Council and the Engineering Student Council, both of which had lobbied administrators to release the information this semester. Shollenberger also sent them a document, which can be read here, outlining specific initiatives that some portions of the fee were used for last year.
Shollenberger said he brought up the idea of releasing the fee breakdown to the term bill committee, which is headed by Provost John Coatsworth, in response to student concerns. The committee then recommended to the board of trustees that the information be released.
Shollenberger explained that the committee had not previously made the breakdown public because it did not want students to “get into the argument about certain dollar amounts and not understand the bigger picture.”
Terry Martinez, dean of community development and multicultural affairs, said she was worried about the tone of the conversations that might arise—particularly in Spectator and on Bwog—if the fee breakdown were made public.
“I think that's exactly what there was concern about in the past, that this isn't good discourse, that it's just an opportunity for people to be snarky,” Martinez said. “And for those that want to have some good discussions, you can't have it in that forum. It does get into, The football team sucks, so let's not give them money.'”
ESC President Tim Qin, SEAS '13, said that while releasing the breakdown was a step in the right direction, he still wants more information.
“I think that it's good to have transparency, and for students to know exactly where the money will go, as far as specific buckets,” he said. “I think we need to better understand exactly how that money is used for each of the buckets.”
The $216 student activities fee is given to CCSC and ESC, which came to $982,368 for CCSC and $330,912 for ESC this academic year. The largest portion of the councils' annual budgets is distributed to governing boards, who in turn give the funds to student organizations. The councils use most of the rest of their budgets to sponsor events directly.
ESC Vice President of Finance Siddhant Bhatt, SEAS '14, said that an even more specific breakdown of how the overall student life fees are spent would help him better allocate ESC funds. He questioned why athletics receives such a large portion of the fees.
“Does any of that money help subsidize club sports groups, their transport?” Bhatt asked. “If it subsidizes their transport, it makes my life easier in deciding how much of our budget I want to allocate to their transport.”
Bhatt said he was excited to see the numbers released but cautioned that students should be reasonable in their reactions to the breakdown.
“From our end, we're happy because the numbers got released, and it shows that we have the power to get something released that students wanted to see,” Bhatt said. “We're hoping that students are mature about it and don't harp about it.”
Jessica Chi, CC '15, said that while students were “a little lukewarm” on some parts of the breakdown, she didn't have any issues with it.
“It's nice to know that money is going to resources that I support, and I know exactly where it's going and that I'm not just paying some fees into the depths of some Columbia system that I know nothing about,” she said.
Justin Yang, CC '13, said he was glad that the administration released the breakdown, but he added that he would like to see more money going toward career services.
“I'm supportive of the release of these numbers, and I'd like to see more dialogue on it in the future,” Yang said.
Many students said they were frustrated to learn that such a large portion of the fee goes to athletics. Ben Swetland, CC '15, said, ”I think we're wasting a lot of money on sports, because they don't really enrich our intellectual experience at Columbia.”
Swetland said that the money would be better spent on the Arts Initiative, which has seen its funding cut substantially over the last few years.
“I think it's more logical for us to fund things within the humanities and the arts than it is for us to fund athletics, which have no long-term benefit to anyone,” Swetland said.
However, Matt Brystol, CC '14 and a varsity wrestler, said that the money spent on athletics makes sense.
“Having an atmosphere like that [of an athletic arena] really attracts donors, who really put in the money. Tuition's adding a lot, but donors adding in multimillion dollars is really what's bringing in a lot of money,” Brystol said. “Filling a stadium, it really attracts alumni to come in and feel a part of the whole experience at Columbia.”
Some students were unsure what the $2 “cross-cutting multi-school activities fee” is used for. The document provided by Shollenberger states that it funds the Interschool Governing Board, a governing board that oversees groups with both undergraduate and graduate student members.
Qin said that student feedback is important as the councils work to evaluate the breakdown.
“I think it's just great that there's more transparency, and that's what the student councils have been working on this past year,” he said.
Bhatt agreed, saying that while the numbers warrant further discussion, he is “pretty satisfied” about the administration's decision to release them. He said CCSC and ESC members had dinner with Shollenberger earlier in the semester to discuss making the breakdown public.
“We had that dinner about four weeks ago,” Bhatt said. “And to have that sitting in my inbox in PDF form four weeks later is pretty unprecedented.”
Yasmin Gagne, Avantika Kumar, Samantha Cooney, and Cecilia Reyes contributed reporting.