The California Community College Chancellor’s Office released a legal opinion in 2012 entitled The Student Fee Handbook that details the legal justifications for the fees colleges charge.
The legal opinion details the legal issues surrounding the student activity fee. The student activity fee is a $5 fee charged to all students throughout the three campuses of the Contra Costa Community College District every semester. The funding is transferred to the college’s student government and is supposed to support campus events and student activities.
Greg Enholm, Governing Board trustee representing East County, said he read a legal opinion in 2010 regarding student fees, but has never read the Student Fee Handbook.
Vicki Ferguson, dean of student life at Contra Costa College, and John Marquez, the president of the Contra Costa Community College District Board of Governors, said they also have never read the Student Fee Handbook.
Vice President of CCC Tammeil Gilkerson said, “Of course I’ve read the student fee handbook. It details the legality of all the instructional, material and course fees we are allowed to charge. It’s my job to have read it.”
The Student Fee Handbook begins with the State Chancellor’s Office’s legal interpretation of the basic law on student fees. Specifically, the Student Fee Handbook begins by describing the difference between optional and mandatory fees.
A fee is mandatory in nature, according to the Student Fee Handbook, if “[it] must be paid as a condition of admission to a college; or as a condition of registration, enrollment, or entry into classes; or as a condition to completing the required classroom objectives of a course, or of access to critical functions of the college.”
When the student activity fee was first charged in the spring semester of 2012, as reported in the Oct. 10, 2012 edition of The Advocate, it was billed mid-semester. The time of the billing made it impossible to waive the fee.
According to Jose Vera, who works in the Cashier’s Office in the Student Services Center, 130 students waived the student activity fee this semester. There are 6,428 students attending CCC this fall, meaning only 2 percent of students waived the fee.
Jazmine Ramezanzadeh, the Associated Student Union president in fall 2012, was quoted as saying the fee would prevent students from adding or dropping classes if they failed to pay it.
In regards to optional student fees, The Student Fee Handbook explains, “Only if students understand that the fee is truly optional can they make an informed decision about paying it. In addition, the processes by which students may claim exemptions from paying a mandatory fee or may decline to pay an optional fee should not be unduly burdensome to students.”
The conflict between these two passages of The Student Fee Handbook call into question the legality of the practices surrounding the student activity fee at CCC.
Stating that the fee is optional and not unduly burdensome, chapter four of the Student Fee Handbook is titled “Prohibited Practices.”
On the list of prohibited practices is charging a “Mandatory Student Activities Fee.” The legal opinion of the State Chancellor’s Office states, “It is imperative that the optional nature of the fee be communicated to students and that students have an effective means of declining to pay the fee.”
Students at CCC currently do not have effective means of declining to pay the student activity fee, and the optional nature of the fee has not been communicated to them.
“Students can pick up a fee waiver from my office, the Cashier’s Office or the Student Life Office,” Ferguson said. “Then in order to waive the fee, they must fill it out, and drop it off at the Cashier’s Office during the registration period.”
Marquez said the process of waiving the student activity fee meets the definition of unduly burdensome.
“Students already have to pay such high fees, we, at the district need to remember that even a fee as small as $5 can hurt students,” Marquez said. “Requiring that students stand in line at a place with limited hours and fill out paperwork to receive a refund definitely creates a hardship for students wishing to waive the fee, and that is an issue.”
The Cashier’s Office is busy during the registration period, and the hours it is open are very limited. The office is never open past 3:30 p.m. Students with jobs that keep them past 3 p.m., such as a 9-4 shift, may never have an opportunity to stand in line to waive the fee.
The Student Fee Handbook describes the process of waiving the student activity fee at CCC as “fraught with potential problems.” The Student Fee Handbook says, in order to implement a sign off method, the officials authorized to process the waiver must be on-site and easily accessible during the registration period.
The handbook describes a “negative check-off” method, where students are asked online while paying their bills if they wish to pay the $5 student activity fee or not, as “legal and appropriate.”
The Advocate conducted a small, random survey of 100 students, and 89 of the students polled said they had no idea the student activity fee was optional.
There are a limited number of posters around campus that explain what the student activity fee is and what it has done for students. These posters are currently providing students with the wrong time and place of ASU meetings. A sign describing the student activity fee is outside of the Student Services Center, yet hedges bury the portion describing the optional nature of the fee.
Gilkerson said the authority of the college to restrict a student’s ability to add or drop courses for not paying the student activity fee stems from the Student Fee Handbook. The Student Fee Handbook explains that if a student “owes a proper debt to a college or district,” then their registration abilities may be impacted as a means of reconciling the debt.
This would justify the restrictions on enrollment non-payment of the student activity fee can create, except in separate legal opinions the State Chancellor and the California Attorney General have defined student governments as “auxiliary organizations.”
The State Chancellor’s Office described in its legal opinion 12-07 that auxiliary organizations are “private entities,” and that their designation as such “is not changed by the fact that the districts have the power to oversee organization funds.”
The student activity fee may not be due the college or district at all.
The California Attorney General wrote in a 2005 legal opinion, “California courts have generally recognized auxiliary organizations as private entities rather than as public agencies or as part of the public bodies they seek to aid or assist.”
In this case, the college and district are the public bodies and the ASU, a private entity, exists to support. These legal opinions, however, suggest the student activity fee may be due the ASU, and thus should not be capable of affecting a student’s ability to register for classes if they fail to pay the fee. Enholm said that in his interpretation of the law, that he believed this to be the case.
Marquez said he would bring the Student Fee Handbook and the issues it presents to the Governing Board, but that the board always feels more comfortable and responds better to issues raised by students.
Enholm said the issue should be presented to the student Trustee Elijah Ziskin. Enholm said Ziskin is in the unique position of representing all students in the district. As of press time Tuesday, Ziskin refused to comment on the topic.
“The student activity fee has existed (in colleges and universities in California) since the 1960s,” Marquez said. “Though it was different. When I was a student we sold student body cards. They offered students different discounts and perks around the community. Doing that we were able to raise money for events, for concerts and for movie screenings. I haven’t seen things like that since the 1980s.”
Marquez said apathy was the reason student governments moved to having the district charge students the fee, and that apathy was also responsible for the clear lack of activities he noticed when comparing his time as a student to today.
Marquez’s concerns about the usefulness of the student activity fee are shared not only by the dean of student life, but also by the president of the ASU.
The ASU canceled its Grant for Support program this year. Last year, the Grant for Support was the means the ASU used to give money out to different clubs and college organizations on campus. The Grant for Support was funded by the $5 student activity fee.
“We have canceled the Grant for Support program,” Ferguson said. “We had concerns regarding whether or not the money was actually being used on students or not, and we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t.”
ASU President Antone Agnitsch said he agreed.
“The Grant for Support program was being used by faculty members to fund their extra credit projects,” Agnitsch said. “We want to make sure the student activity fee is actually being spent on students.”
The ASU has spent money on their Fall Festival event so far this semester, but little else, leaving the funds generated by the student activity fee sitting idle.
Agnitsch said the ASU wants to resume the Grant for Support program eventually, but they need to find a way to ensure it is student focused while fairly offering money to different groups around campus.
Posters around campus advertise that the student activity fee has reduced Bookstore rental prices, a program that the ASU also cut this year. Agnitsch said virtually no students used the book rental discount program, or if they did the numbers were completely untracked. He said he did not believe that program helped students. Yet it is still advertised on ASU posters around campus.
Last year’s ASU board created a $20,000 debt by mishandling paperwork necessary to pay their bills, Business Office Supervisor Nick Dimitri said. He said despite several attempts to contact Ferguson, who has signatory control of the paperwork the ASU fills out to make payments, for the proper paperwork, it was never forthcoming.
Also, the ASU no longer has a procurement card of its own, Dimitri said.
The ASU plans to increase its involvement with students by handing out surveys at their Fall Festival, as a condition of receiving free food, asking students what the ASU should do with the student activity fee.
Ferguson said increasing the amount of dialogue between students and the ASU is paramount to ensuring the student activity fee is spent on students.