Since early January, a significant increase in student group refunds has caused the ASSU to experience a financial crisis. Refunds have increased considerably in response to a growth in fees, greater student awareness, and the poor economy. As a result, the ASSU has passed a bill to slow student group budget growth and is now looking to reduce refunds in the future.
The ASSU collects fees from every Stanford undergraduate at the rate of $119 per student per quarter, a sum that has increased by 23% over the past three years. Students can choose to have this money refunded to them in full or in part by choosing which specific student groups they desire to fund.
ASSU Budget Revisions
In addition to changes within the refund process, two main fiscal initiatives aim to curb the growth of special fee-supported student group budgets. The first is an ASSU bill that will make it more difficult for special fee groups to increase their budgets. This bill passed on Jan. 19.
The second measure is a revision of funding policies for these groups. The ASSU appropriations committee met and drafted many reimbursement changes, mostly ways to diminish the impact of large budget line items. The largest cuts came from honoraria line items and travel reimbursements.
Student group costs related to bringing speakers to campus have been pegged at $10 per participating student. Food allowances have reduced to $7 per meal per participating student with an allowance of $2 for snacks. The ASSU has decided to cover only food in budgets if the expenditure is absolutely necessary.
Travel expenses for special fees groups like Stanford Mock Trial have been cut to $200 or 50% of a student’s travel expenses, whichever is smaller, from $400 or 75% of the expense previously.
In addition, group spending on accommodations has been strictly defined. The ASSU mandates four occupants per room in order to qualify for budget approval, and will only subsidize the minimum number of nights required by the group.
This process, however, has not been without criticisms and problems. Senator Anton Zietsman, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said, “The magnitude of the reaction [to budget and reimbursement revisions] was amplified by a small number of vocal people. Otherwise the response has been mostly positive.”
He went on to say, “We did everything necessary to involve [student group] financial officers in the process, and many chose not to get involved. It has been very frustrating. We’ve been trying to get as much input as possible.”
A substantial number of student group financial officers have protested the strain this bill could put on their programs and how the changes will adversely affect the Stanford community.
Minh Dan Vuong, the financial officer for Alternative Spring break, said, “If this bill stays in place, we will have a very hard time…it will make it much more difficult for us to get access to funding increases and expand our program. I think this bill creates a lot of unintended consequences. If a group is actually cutting down their costs, they will have to be afraid that they can’t bounce back to the same number [budget] two or three years down the road.”
Senator Alex Katz, also the Review’s Executive Editor, defended the bill and warned that the onus of responsibility is now on the special fee groups. “The way I view the problem is we need to take short and long term steps…. I view all of these, to some extent, as being short-term, necessary steps to bring down the refund rate so that groups programming doesn’t die over the next quarter.”
“I think the long term initiatives are trying to slow the growth of the system and demonstrate to the student body’s money is being spent in a responsible way and that there is justification for their money being spent for these groups. Special fees groups need to act responsibly. We’ll see if they do. If they don’t, the next Senate could have an even larger crisis on their hands,” said Katz.
ASSU Refund Initiatives
The Executive branch has proposed making students who take refunds more accountable to the Stanford community. David Gobaud, the ASSU President, is leading the group to remake the refund website.
One way the ASSU aims to increase accountability is by releasing the names of students who receive refunds. Under this proposed system, student information would be supplied to student organizations, which then could prevent students from taking part in their activities.
At the moment, the release of information is already permitted by Stanford’s student government, but issues related to the release of SUID numbers have prevented this from actually occurring.
The Senate is debating alternate means of complying with Stanford and Federal regulations regarding the release of this sensitive information. Indeed, even if the ASSU approved releasing names to pressure individuals to be accountable, there is no guarantee that Stanford’s registrar office would supply the information.
Another idea being considered is to reduce the time frame during which students can claim refunds from three weeks to two weeks. Currently, Stanford’s registrar office collects the refund money, holds it until the seventh week of the quarter, and then sends out the refunds in the form of checks.
In a letter to the University financial office, Stanford Student Enterprises CEO Matt McLaughlin advised the Registrar’s office to change the method of payment to a tuition credit to reduce the incentive for students to take a refund.
The letter contained this explanation: “The ASSU suspects that a current University practice might be playing a contributing role in this increase [in refunds]. Specifically, the ASSU has learned that students who opt to refund their activities fee currently receive their student activity refunds in the form of a check. The ASSU believes that the issuance of checks directly to students encourages further refunding behavior as students perversely come to view these check as a form of quarterly income.”
If the ASSU were to cover refunds completely, the emergency buffer fund could be exhausted in less than two years. At the Senate meeting on February 9, the Senate discussed a bill to ease short-term refund rate pressure. This winter quarter, refunds will be covered up to 16%, and in the Spring quarter refunds will be covered up to 13%. The ASSU hopes to have the refund rate down to 10% by Autumn quarter this year.
The political will to come up with a long-term solution has to last through several election cycles. Mr. McLaughlin said, “Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to address all these problems. That’s why we have to dance around the edges and address all the causes of the issue.”