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ASSU buffer fund far larger than peer institutions’

Olivia Moore co-reported this article.

Stanford students pay at least three times as much in activities fees as students at Harvard, UC-Berkeley

During a time of funding shortfalls for universities and student groups across the country, the ASSU has not only avoided running a deficit, but has continued to add to its $1.2 million general fees reserves and buffer funds – in large part because it seldom fully spends the money it receives from student fees.

According to ASSU Assistant Financial Manager Stephen Trusheim ’13, the ASSU collected about $3 million this year from student fees – for undergraduates, this means $140 per student per quarter. Approximately $2.25 million was allocated through special fees and $650,000 was left for the Undergraduate Senate and Graduate Student Council (GSC) to allocate to groups through the general fees funding process.

According to Trusheim, one-third of general fees and special fees go unused or unallocated every year. This surplus can occur when a special fees or general fees group does not spend its entire budget or when the Senate does not allocate the entire general fees fund.

The leftover money goes into a general reserve fund or a specific organization’s reserves, depending on whether the funds were collected through general fees or special fees.

“I think that student money that comes in every year should be spent for the benefit of the students who pay it,” Trusheim said. “In an ideal world, we would spend all the money that we brought in every year.”

Current ASSU finance projections predict that the undergraduate general fee reserve funds will total $863,606 by the end of the 2012 fiscal year. The general fee reserves have grown by an average of $67,240 every year since 2007.

The ASSU also has buffer funds, which are maintained by charging students an extra 5 to 10 percent more than what is actually necessary to fund special fees groups each year. This ensures that the groups will have adequate funding even if enrollment fluctuates or an unusually large number of students apply for fee waivers, which every student is allowed to do.

According to data provided by Trusheim, the Undergraduate Buffer Fund grew from $301,909 at the end of the 2006 fiscal year to $559,440 at the end of the 2011 fiscal year – an increase of over $250,000.

Some of Stanford’s peer institutions charge a much smaller student fee. Harvard’s Undergraduate Council charges an annual $75 student activities fee, and UC Berkeley’s Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) charges an annual fee of $55. Stanford undergraduates pay a fee of about $420 per year.

Trusheim said that part of the reason why Stanford’s fees are so high compared to other schools is that Stanford’s system allows for student groups to apply for money from students, instead of the entire budget being allocated by the legislative body. He said that this distinction is “reflective of Stanford’s entrepreneurial culture.”

“It leads to higher student fees, but maybe those higher student fees contribute to better student life,” Trusheim said.

Harvard and UC Berkeley’s student governments typically spend all of their annual revenues from student activities fees and have less money in their reserves.

Harvard’s Undergraduate Council has $73.82 in their reserve fund for the 2012-2013 academic year, according to the council’s budget information. While they held several thousand dollars in their reserves in previous years, it was largely spent last year.

The Harvard student governments spent its entire budget last year.

UC Berkeley’s student government, which has a policy of spending all of the approximately $1.6 million that it collects from student fees each year, recently announced a budget deficit of $50,000 because it allocated too much money to student groups during the spring allocation process.

Although the ASUC could dip into its $400,000 reserves fund or liquidate the approximately $2.7 million it holds in real estate and investments, ASUC Finance Officer Amir Chini said that this would only be done as a last resort. He also expressed concern that the reserves fund had been depleted at an unsustainable rate, as the ASUC has been running a deficit for several years.

“Right now, the situation is not dire, but people in the ASUC are worried because they don’t want to give up more power,” he said.

Stanford’s GSC has also been depleting its reserves, but as part of a strategic policy enacted in 2007. The size of their general reserve fund has decreased from $572,267 at the end of 2006 to $396,998 at the end of 2011, as the GSC has pulled money from reserves to fund more student events without increasing the student fee.

“There is a benefit in responsibly using the general fee reserves to fund increased levels of programming,” Trusheim said.

He predicted that the GSC could continue this policy for seven to 10 years before their fund depletes.

“They are doing the best that they can,” he said. “[The GSC plan to use its reserves] was a good policy back in 2007, and it remains a good policy today.”

Trusheim said that he would not necessarily recommend that the Undergraduate Senate adopt the same policy, but said the Senate should consider it as an option for reducing the size of the reserves.

After attending an ASSU finance presentation hosted by Trusheim and Stanford Student Enterprises CEO Neveen Mahmoud ’11, senators expressed their desire to take advantage of the reserve and buffer funds. They do not currently have any specific plans for the money.

A previous version of this article included references to funding for student groups at Princeton University that have since been removed.

  • Blanca

    An important article, thank you.

    This is something that needs to be fixed… It’s not “reflective of Stanford’s entrepreneurial culture,” it’s at best a contrivance and at worst shows how disorganized both the student government and the administration are.

    I would love to be corrected if wrong.

  • Stephen Trusheim

    Hi Blanca,

    While I don’t necessarily like high student fees, the rules that created Special Fees, the “disorganization” you speak of, have been in place since at least 1999. I don’t think it shows “disorganization” when we exactly follow the rules that have been set down since you and I were nine years old. Perhaps you have alternate evidence toward your point?

    Cheers,

    Stephen
    ASSU Assistant Financial Manager
    Fmr. ASSU Elections Commissioner