Special Fees: What They Are and How to Fix Them

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What are Special Fees?

Most student groups are funded in large part by The Stanford Fund, the ASSU, or group dues, with a select few receiving money from student tuition dollars. But many groups request a large portion of their funding directly from the student body through Special Fees, which are approved by ballot measure each year. During the voting process in Spring Quarter, students may vote to fund some or all of the groups on the ballot. Alternatively, they can fill out an online waiver to receive a full refund.

So what’s the problem?

Recently, Special Fees came under heavy scrutiny after initial funding requests skyrocketed 75% from last year’s $2 million to a whopping $3.5 million. The ASSU immediately began reviewing individual budget plans to bring spending back to a sustainable level, initially scaling the total cost down to $2.7 million. Senate Chair Ben Holston (‘15) and Appropriations Committee Chair Angela Zhang (‘16) have since succeeded in creating a $2.1 million budget sheet.

Since student groups only need to acquire 700 student signatures in order to appear on the Special Fees ballot, almost anyone can request large sums of money. The digital age has converted this once effective preliminary safeguard into a negligible hurdle.

Holston explains, “Theoretically, the students should be regulating their own activities fee by voting down groups in the actual election. But last year every single group on the ballot for an undergraduate special fee was approved by the students. Students don’t want to vote down groups, so the burden of making sure the fee doesn’t increase exorbitantly then falls on the Senate when we review these groups prior to the election.”

But in the end they brought spending back down. So it’s ‘crisis averted,’ right?

Not exactly. Such a drastic one-year increase suggests a fundamental problem with the system. And while all can certainly appreciate that we have representatives ready to scrutinize funding requests, expecting the ASSU to sit down and redo every student group’s budget each year seems an impractical solution.

The current voting process, which forces students to vote simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on student groups, allows for little flexibility in approving funds. Stephen Trusheim, the ASSU Assistant Financial Manager (‘13), observes: “The student fee funding process is fundamentally broken because it does not allow anybody to make holistic decisions about the utility of an extra few dollars…Students have to make black-and-white choices for each group — either funding 100% of a request, or shutting the group down.”

How much money are we talking about, anyway?

Special Fees are currently $420 per year, per student. Without reform, Special Fees are projected to rise to $450 per student next year. At over $1600 over a student’s undergraduate career, these fees are enough to cause concern for most.

“Our student fees are 2-20 times higher than our peer institutions’ laments Trusheim. Exposing further failures in the system, he continues, “We don’t spend over 20% of the money we get each year, over half of students (including group Financial Officers) don’t understand what the ASSU fee is, and many of those who do choose to waive their entire fee. We’ve interviewed over fifty FOs, surveyed or met with hundreds more, and heard the same story: both General Fees and Special Fees don’t work for student groups, and we need a change.”

Not only are most students unaware of what these fees actually are, but student groups are currently required to budget over a year and a half in advance. This level of budgeting foresight is daunting enough for any college undergraduate, but it seems even more unreasonable to demand it from student groups that undergo constant turnover in officers and members each year.

According to Ben Holston, planning so far in advance has created incentives to over-budget and resulted in Special Fees reserves of over $2.1 million. This also happens with General Fees, the small funding requests made at the start of each year. Says Holston, “Every non-Special Fees student group gets a budget of $6,000 or $7,000 automatically. But a lot of groups don’t use all of this money or don’t ask for any funding at all. At the end of each year, about $100,000 in unspent General Fees money rolls over into the General Fees reserves. Right now, those reserves have more than $500,000 sitting in them.”

While the Senate can make withdrawals from the General Fees account, once money rolls over into the Special Fees reserves, the ASSU has no control over how the groups spend the funds.

All right, so the current system’s in bad shape. How do we fix it?

Olivia and Justine Moore (‘16) are part of the SAFE Reform project, what many consider to be the solution to the current funding crisis. According to their website, SAFE Reform “will decrease the student fee, cut ASSU bureaucracy, stabilize the funding system, eliminate wasted fee money, create more flexible funding opportunities, and still give student groups the opportunity to access exactly as much money as they can today.”

That may seem too good to be true, but Holston explains why he believes SAFE Reform can achieve all that it aims to: “There would no longer be General Fees and Special Fees groups under the new system. Instead groups would request Major, Minor and Quick Grants over the course of the year. Minor Grants would be requested at the beginning of each quarter and reviewed by a funding board of four Senators and three other people that would be appointed by the Senate.”

Unlike General Fees, Minor Grants would be uncapped, but they would also be under the supervision of the newly-created Funding Board. Most groups would receive their funding through Minor and Quick Grants. Major Grants would be for bigger student groups with larger budgets and would be approved like Special Fees are now.

Won’t being able to request money so often create even more waste?

This ability to receive funding several times throughout the year is a win-win situation. “Giving groups flexibility with multiple rounds of funding also means that they can have concrete plans, quotes, and estimates before they request funds,” comments Trusheim. “On the other side, we back that trust up with careful accounting of every group’s funds, limitations on how groups can spend funds they receive, and proactive communication with groups to make sure they are using students’ money wisely. I’m sure there will be a few problems under the new system; but there will always be a few problems, and SAFE Reform doesn’t create new opportunities for graft.”

Trusheim believes allowing groups to petition for small bundles of money throughout the year will cut back on any possible misappropriation of funds. “[Currently] if a Special Fees application just lists ‘hotel rental over Spring Break,’ there’s nothing to say they can’t use that money to rent a hotel in Hawaii. [Under SAFE Reform], if the Funding Board allocates a grant for a hotel rental for a specific program on a certain date in a certain location, we have much more understanding whether going to Hawaii was the intent of the student body. If the ASSU has funded ‘Officer Meeting Food,’ there’s nowhere that says they can’t use that at Sundance Steakhouse; but a more in-depth approval process enabled by SAFE Reform can allow the student body to have specific approval power over whether that expense is reasonable.”

Talk to me about individual savings. In dollars, how much would SAFE Reform save me?

“The most important part of SAFE Reform is that it caps the annual student fee at around $360 [per year] and only allows it to increase with inflation,” Ben Holston affirms. This is a significant cut from the current $420-$450, saving students hundreds of dollars over their four years at Stanford.

A constitutional amendment enacting SAFE Reform will be up for a Senate vote in Week 8. While advocates are still rallying the support of student groups, Holston is “confident” that they can get it passed. If approved by the ASSU, the measure would be on the ballot for student body approval this spring. If ratified by the student body, SAFE Reform would take effect beginning the 2015-2016 school year.

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