It has come to the attention of the Student Government Association that the university administration is attempting to bring to the discussion of the Texas State University System Board of Regents the issue of the application of various fee waivers for 100 percent online students. It is also our understanding that these offices will be advocating for the removal of these exemptions and waivers for almost all undergraduate level students, with the exception of out of state students. While we applaud and wish to support the efforts to restructure the various 100 percent online student waivers and exemptions policy, we wish to stress a different solution.
Texas Education Code 54.218 reads as follows:
The governing board of an institution of higher education may waive a fee it is authorized to charge if the board determines that:
(1) a student is enrolled only in distance learning courses or other off-campus courses of the institution;
(2) the student cannot reasonably be expected to use the activities, services, or facilities on which the fee is based; and
(3) the waiver of the fee will not materially impair the ability of the institution either to service any debt on which the fee is based or to offer or operate the particular activity, service, or facility supported by the fee.
While I am not able to appropriately judge whether or not the waivers of these fees are impairing the ability of our university to provide services, I am led to believe that this determination could be met soon. Based on a report from the office of the vice president for student services there has been a 10 percent increase in facility usage in fall 2013 but only a total enrollment increase of 4 percent. One possible explanation would be that those students who are taking on-campus classes are using the facilities at higher rates than their historical peers. This assertion, I challenge. When comparing the median distance from campus 100 percent online students, 100 percent on-campus students and hybrid students we can see that they are all fairly consistently grouped around 50 miles. We also see that the proportion of undergraduate 100 percent online students that are within 60 miles has increased drastically since Fiscal Year 2010 and is scheduled to be almost identical by FY 2017. Since these trends have been moving in the pattern stated above and the similar median distance from campus of these three groups of students, I am led to conclude that 100 percent online students are making a substantial impact on the 10 percent increase in facility use in fall 2013.
At SHSU, 100 percent online student are exempt from three fees: the Lowman Student Center Fee, Recreational Sports Fee and the Health Services Fee. When combined, these three fees constitute a lost income of $275 per student. When multiplied by the number of students within 60 miles of campus (1,190 in fall 2013) we see a loss from the University of $327,250 every semester. Based on the projects for FY 2017, that number would jump (assuming fees remain constant) to $3,400,650 per year. It is clearly apparent to many of the parties in this discussion that a change in the policy is needed and needed soon.
When we look at how other institutions of higher education have addressed this same issue, we see a vast ocean of possibilities. Some universities only offer graduate or doctorate level online classes. Others waive fees such as athletics in addition to the fees we waive, and other institutions do not waive any fee. Seeing that each university is taking a different stance on this issue, I feel it is best to take an individualized approach to the students at SHSU. I would recommend that the policy be amended to apply these fees to all students who take 100 percent online classes but live within a set radius, possibly 60 miles, of campus. In referencing the Texas Education Code above, we need to ensure that the fees we are waiving are those which students cannot reasonably use. The use of our facilities has been deemed reasonable to use for those students who attend classes on campus, even if they chose not to use the facilities, without any thought given to their place of residence. It is reasonable for on-campus students to use the facilities even when they live, on average, 50-plus miles from campus. Since this distance is deemed reasonable for on-campus students, I would argue that it is reasonable for distance learning students, within the same radius, to use our facilities. Based on statistics gathered by the office of the vice president of student services (a report that uses data on addresses of students which could also be used in the implementation of the preferred policy), in fall 2013, almost 40 percent of students in on-campus-only courses lived farther than 60 miles and more than 50 percent of 100 percent online students live within this distance. If SHSU changes its policy to state that 60 miles from campus is the borderline distance for these fees, we would be able to collect fees from a growing majority of undergraduate online students. As our policy is currently written, students who attend classes on campus are paying for the use of the facilities, not only for themselves but for their physical neighbors. While I shy away from anecdotal evidence in arguments such as these, a growing number of students in official student organizations and increasing amount of students attend events on campus declare themselves as 100 percent online students. There needs to be adjustments to our policies to require students who are using, or have the potential to use, our facilities are paying the appropriate fees.
Between the option of a radial borderline (possibly 60 miles, but the final distance I will not definitively enumerate) and a hard rule of anyone within the state of Texas, I would prefer, and am advocating for, the first. Texas Education Code 54.218 does not give any strong guidance on the term “reasonably be expected” but I believe a borderline radius would be the best way, in our particular institution, to determine this term. A large number of our student commute from the geographic region between Willis and North Houston to Huntsville, and I suspect that this also encapsulates a large number (if not majority) of our 100 percent online students. While the options the university administration is a proponent of would bring in more revenue for the university, I disagree that all these students would be reasonably expected to use the facilities. If you are a student living in Dallas, Austin or El Paso, you would not be reasonably expected to use the facilities of Sam Houston State University on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. These students may be faced with these fees if we do not institute a radius plan. While the law gives our Board of Regents the authority to authorize these waivers, but does not mandate they exist, I feel that the logic from the 2001 Executive Leadership is applicable and sound. SHSU should not require students whom lack the reasonable ability to use the facilities to pay for them. Since 2001, a lot has changed in higher education, especially online courses. Although it is necessary to change our policy, we should still keep the fundamental portion of our policy in place: those who do not have the reasonable option to use the facilities should be exempt.
Our final argument in this matter is more ideological in nature. While we understand that the office of finance and operation is tasked with ensuring that our university can function with the proper amount of money and resources, and that the option to mandate all students to pay for these fees would increase the revenue from these fees far beyond that which the radius option would allow, we only ask that an individual student perspective be factored in to this discussion. Policies regarding students, especially those that are so intertwined with the finance of students, should be crafted from the intent to provide as many benefits to the individual as possible. It is my opinion that it is not right to implement the blanket fee policy, largely because it places undue strain on those students who live at an unreasonable distance, yet live close enough for this policy to take effect. By having a radius determination as our policy, we will be able to recover much of the lost revenue generated from our current policy, allow for a more equal distribution of fee for those who actually have the opportunity to use the facilities and be worded such that it falls within the confines of Texas state law.
While I have just presented our argument for a radius-based amendment to the current policy of 100 percent online student fee waivers, the final decision may be very different. In discussions with these various university offices, we understand the reality that there are no clear mechanisms to enforce this above policy, as the information our university obtains does not effectively guarantee accuracy in a distance based policy. While we need to have a solution today for the problems we are having, we also need to be creating a policy that take into account long term ramifications and solutions. The Student Government Association will do all we can to work alongside the Sam Houston State University Administration and our Texas State University System Board of Regents to create effective, efficient and appropriate mechanisms to enforce a distance-based plan to allow students with no reasonable expectation of use to avoid these burdensome fees. This is a problem that is so large that we need coordinated efforts from students, all the applicable university administrators and members in the Texas State University System to create and implement long-term solutions as we deal with the immediate short-term problems. We look forward to being part of this team.
SHSU Student Government Association
Student Body President