Student fees are incredibly important to Stanford’s vibrant community. In total, the ASSU distributes nearly $3 million to 775 different Voluntary Student Organizations (VSOs) by collecting $143 per quarter from each undergraduate student this year.
Yet the rules that govern student fees are read by few and understood by fewer. For a select group – ASSU Senators and VSO treasurers – it is their job to understand this complex system. For the rest of the student body, “special fees” are only relevant for a couple months in the spring and even then are the subject of much indifference. “General fees” receive even less attention.
The system’s complexity – for both General and Special Fees – undermines student interest, reducing crucial oversight. A more approachable system is badly needed.
There are two categories of student fees: Special and General.
The vast majority of student groups use general fees, which authorize spending of up to $6,000 annually. Rather than being distributed as lump-sum deposits to specific groups the funds are held by the ASSU Senate, and groups can submit requests for specific funding items. While the lack of group discretion can be frustrating, this setup does allow for clear oversight for the proposed spending.
However, general fees groups are thus limited in the way they can plan and spend. There is no advantage to planning far ahead because these groups are not given funds until they submit specific requests.
Moreover, these appropriations excessively consume the Senate’s time. For example, at one meeting in November, the Senate voted on appropriations requests totaling only $32,000. Senators should be able to use their time more productively, and they should not be asked to be accounting professionals. Senators should not be expected to be well versed in finance, nor should they have to have an in depth knowledge of each VSO. Because of this steep learning curve, after each election any institutional knowledge gained is quickly lost.
Special Fees: The Rules
Most of the ASSU’s funds are dispersed via special fees: about $2.5 million of the total $3 million from last year. In the spring of 2013, 54 of 55 groups (and all 50 undergraduate VSOs) had their Special Fees approved – meaning that they will have funding for the current school year.
Each of these groups petitioned because they want to spend more than the $6,000 limit of General Fees. Moreover, they were seeking more control of their respective budgets so they could fully plan their budget for the entire year. Needless to say, Special Fees give groups significantly more discretion than General Fees.
While the reasons may be clear, the process that these groups went through was not. The first step for a group is to review their current accounts and budget and estimate a proposed budget for the upcoming year.
The second step is to earn a spot on the ballot. Groups that received a majority of the vote last year, garnered 60% of the vote in the Senate and increased their budget by less than 7.1% – a 5% increase plus 2.1% for inflation – are automatically allowed back onto the ballot.
VSOs applying for the first time and groups that have previously received Special Fees, but did not meet the third criteria above, are required to “petition.” Yet there is not just one way to petition. First, petitioners have the option to collect the signatures of 15% of the student body. If they opt not to do that, they must collect the signatures of 10% of the student body and earn the support of 60% of the Undergraduate Senate.
Once groups have jumped through each of these hoops, they have only accomplished half the task. Now that they are on the ballot, they must be approved by the student voters.
Again, this is not straightforward. Expectedly, groups must receive a majority of the votes cast. But this is nearly guaranteed because of the opt-out system. Students must specifically choose not to vote for specific groups but can approve all groups in one click. But beyond that, 15% of the entire student body must vote “yes” on the group’s petition. This means that low voter turnout may make it difficult for some groups to secure funding. Only if both voting criteria are met will the group will receive its requested funding.
Figure 1, a graphic provided by the ASSU Election Commission, shows just how complicated this process is.
No Recount Needed
Despite this convoluted petition and election process year after year nearly all undergraduate petitions are approved. Figure 2 displays the best available election return data. In 5 of the last 9 elections, every undergraduate petition was approved. 2010 had the lowest approval rate and even that was a lofty 88%. And while the approval rate is constant, the average vote share is steadily increasing – from 65% in 2005 to 73% in 2013. Similarly, the absolute number of petitions approved is increasing; that number jumped by 15 between 2005 and 2013.
Do students know about what they are voting on? These results suggest they don’t. By and large, the Special Fees system seems structured so that the groups that put in the requisite hours receive the funds they request, regardless of the merit of their budget itself.
It’s clear that budgets could be more carefully planned. Only about 75% of funds allocated through Special Fees are spent. The result is a massive $1.3 million reserve fund that largely goes untouched. Similarly, Special Fees groups later requested $300,000 in budget modifications.
Oversight, supposedly from voters, is lacking.
Defeating special fee petitions is extremely difficult.
Students may act as sponsors against a special fee petition. The first statement submitted will appear on the ballot, but there is no guarantee that it will be given equal attention with the Special Fee request.
If the Special Fee is passed despite this, which history suggests is likely, then students are able to waive their student fees for any or all groups. Their tuition for that term is then refunded. This is an increasingly popular option, with 14% waiving some or all of their student fees in spring of 2013.
More rebelliously, one student developed a script to automatically vote “no” on each special fee. The Daily estimated that $110,000 would have been saved if only 400 students had used this script during the spring 2013 election.
However, these solutions are only Band-Aids. They provide no long term structural recourse for those who oppose increasing student fees, although doing so is badly needed.
Support SAFE Reform
In response, a few students have joined formed a group to reconfigure the funding system. That group, Student Activity Fee Reform or SAFE Reform, proposes drastic changes to the ASSU funding system that would maintain the positive aspects of special fees while working to eliminate the negative ones.
First, the suggested changes would eliminate special and general fees and replace them with a set of major, minor and quick grants.
Major grants are most similar to the special fees of today in that they would be used to fund large events planned far in advance. The new budgets would be specific to concrete events. Major grants would still require the approval of the student body, although the exact voting mechanism has yet to be clarified.
Election returns from special fees suggest that the vote should be by simple majority and be an opt-in system as opposed to opt-out, which would influence students to consider budgets more carefully. These will be drawn from an account of roughly $1.7 million.
Minor grants would supply the funding for more immediate events. These would be awarded quarterly for an annual sum of about $600,000. While like general fees minor grants would not require student body approval, unlike general fees they would be awarded as a lump-sum payment once approval is received.
Lastly, a new funding resource, quick grants, would be created. Under these, the remaining $200,000 collected from student fees would be reserved. Groups could apply for quick grants if an opportunity or event arises that they could not budget for with either major or minor Grants. Again, students would not have to vote on this type of grant.
The second change is through the creation of a Funding Board. This Board would be responsible for reviewing all grant requests, for making recommendations to the Undergraduate Senate for both major and minor grants, and for authorizing quick grant requests. Four Senators will sit on the Board alongside four appointed members well versed in student finances, such as former Financial Officers or SSE employees. This shifts the responsibility from the Undergraduate Senate to a group of experienced reviewers while still maintaining some elected oversight.
The new grant system would require the Funding Board to meet only once a quarter to approve minor grants, and as needed for quick grants. The Undergraduate Senate would only meet once per term to review the Funding Board’s recommendations. This offers a significant and positive change from the weekly Appropriations Committee meetings on General Fees.
Time is Money
These changes would make the entire system simpler for Senators, groups and students alike. They offer Senators more time to focus on actually improving students’ lives at Stanford. They offer groups more flexibility in planning their budgets and more opportunities to fund events for students. And students would have their student fees dropped by 15% to $360 and capped there.
There are more than enough reasons for everyone to unite behind this reform of an overly complex and dysfunctional system.
Contact Nick Ahamed at firstname.lastname@example.org