Abusing the Refund: The Problem Facing Special Fees

$100,000+ short. As of the close of the refund period for this quarter, fully 16 percent of students, almost 1 out of every 6, has requested a refund from the Special Fees system, leaving the system over $100,000 short, even in spite of the 10 percent buffer collected. The Daily covered this issue last week, but the refunds have only increased since then, in part thanks to the Stanford Conservative Society‘s irresponsible flyering campaign.

I looked at the refund numbers from the past few years and this year’s trend is disturbing. In Fall 2007 and Fall 2008, under 500 undergraduates requested refunds; this year, 788 undergraduates requested refunds, refunding over $36,000 more than in 2008. In and of itself, this isn’t the problem. The purpose of the Special Fees refund process is, in my view, to allow students to punish groups with which they disagree. A student who viewed Musharraf as a sponsor of terrorism could demand a refund from Stanford in Government for bringing him to speak here.

That’s not what is happening here: the average refund is 85 percent of the full amount, with a full 31.5 percent of refunds being full refunds. This is a graph of the requests for full refunds:

Number of Undergraduates Requesting Full Refunds
This quarter (not shown), it seems that those requests must have gone even higher. This is, in my opinion, unacceptable. The existence of special fees groups is a public good on the Stanford campus and it is unacceptable to let a small number of  freeriders jeopardize their existence. I may never take advantage of the Volunteers in Latin America program, but that does not mean that it is not valuable to have that program exist on campus.

Does this mean that I believe that the Special Fees system is in good shape the way that it is? No. Over the last 2 years alone, Special Fees have increased by almost 24 percent. While at their current level they are still only $119 per quarter, which, in comparison to Stanford’s $12,460 tuition and ~$3,800 in room and board per quarter, is still very little, it is unacceptable to see them continue to spike. On Tuesday, the ASSU Undergraduate Senate passed a bill as part of its effort to fix the Special Fees system. The bill, which limits the increase in year-to-year Special Fees for any group to inflation, unless the group petitions for greater funding, is a step towards reining in the rapidly increasing Special Fees costs.

Still, if the current trend regarding refunds continues, it will be necessary to take more drastic steps, both towards controlling Special Fees and towards reducing the refund rate. One option is to make any refund go back to the original bill-payer: if mom and dad are paying for the original Stanford special fee, why should the student be able to receive that money later? If it’s a case of sincerely not believing in an organization’s actions, then the student will still see it as worthwhile to refund the fee. My hypothetical anger at SIG earlier in this post (full disclosure: I’m in SIG and am not angry at them) wouldn’t be changed by the fact that I wouldn’t receive the refund. However, if it’s just about getting 119 dollars to spend on myself, the incentive disappears. I don’t know if that’s practically possible at this point, but it should be considered. Indiscriminate refunds miss the point of the refund system and instead simply deprive Stanford of some of its valuable resources. This needs to stop before it truly impacts the Stanford experience.