All Commentary
Wednesday, July 1, 1992

Student Activity Fees

Mr. Klein practices corporate and securities law in Palo Alto, California.

A report in Insight magazine recently revealed that the City University of New York (CUNY) student government incurred the following expenses: $13,011 for car service, $24,000 in salaries for the sister and close friend of the student senate chairman, $2,209 for an electronic beeper service, and $49,000 for a lobbying trip to Albany to convince legislators not to raise tuition. The expenditures are funded by an 85-cent per semester student activity fee.

When I attended Swarthmore College from 1981 through 1985, I paid a $60 semiannual activity fee to fund various clubs, societies, newsletters, and campus organizations. Thirteen hundred other students paid the same mandatory fee.

The sum collected—$78,000 per semester—was placed in an account and disbursed by a five-person Budget Committee. If a group of students formed a new organization, gained approval from the dean of students, and obtained a faculty adviser, they could petition the Budget Committee for funds. Each club, society, newsletter, and organization petitioned the committee at least once each semester to secure an operating budget. After holding hearings, the committee would allocate money to the Movie Society, the Mountaineering Club, the Take-a-Professor-to-Lunch Program, the Women’s Center, the Asian Students Society, the Christian Fellowship, the Young Americans for Freedom, and other campus groups.

During my undergraduate days at Swarthmore, I circulated the idea among my acquaintances (one of whom was on the Budget Committee) that the committee be abolished and the mandatory student activity fee not be collected. Instead I reasoned, “Let each individual student speak to his friends and acquaintances, decide what interests they have in common, and see how much money they would like to devote to their common interests.”

When I attended the University of Chicago Law School from 1986 through 1989, I again suggested that mandatory fees be eliminated in favor of a system based on individual choice.

When defending my idea at both schools, I was faced with questions such as: “Who will pay for the movies shown every Saturday?” “How will the school maintain the diversity of clubs and organizations? . . . . Who will support the school paper?” “What if a student just spends his $60 on beer?”

I answered each question in turn, often defending my program to groups of students hurling questions at me. I stated that the principal point was to respect each individual’s freedom of choice over his own property. Each of us had relinquished this freedom under the system of centralized planning through the Budget Committee.

I then addressed each empirical question as it was raised: The movie club will charge admission so that only those who attend will pay for movies; the diversity of clubs will be a function of actual interest and how much each individual decides to pay for his participation—certain clubs may fail for lack of support, others may come into existence; the school paper will have to support itself through advertising, alumni contributions, subscriptions, and single-copy sales instead of through the current hidden tax on each student; if a student spends his money on beer, that is his own free choice, no matter how others may view it.

My answers generated many questions and much discussion. Luckily, I found support for my views from one of the economics professors at Swarthmore College and from like-minded students at both Swarthmore and the University of Chicago.

Unfortunately, funding centralization continues at Swarthmore, the University of Chicago, CUNY, and other college campuses. I hope that through the communication of the ideas of liberty, and perhaps by the central planners’ own missteps, such programs can be rooted out to allow freedom to flourish.