Student fees mount at Georgia colleges

Sunday, July 31, 2011 1:40 PM
Last updated 1:58 PM
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When Georgia lawmakers began cutting state funding for colleges, University System officials responded by hitting up students in a big way.

Andrea Jones, Georgia State's assistant vice president of communications, said the issue of auditing student fees will be taken up with Dutton's committee in the fall when students return to campus.

A state audit completed last year raised questions about how student fees were collected and used at several schools.

"We found that the Board of Regents student fee policies allow significant discretion on the part of each (Georgia university) regarding the use of student fee revenues," the audit said. "As such, they provide little assurance that fees are used in a manner that benefits the entire student body to the greatest extent possible even though all students are required to pay these fees."

The audit said that the revenue, expenditure and fund balance data submitted by several colleges was "incomplete, inaccurate and inconsistent."

The audit found a few cases of schools assessing fees that were supposed to be approved first by the Board of Regents but had not been, schools charging students money for meal plans and parking even if they don't live on campus or have cars, and huge balances - particularly at Georgia State, where the recreation fee had a balance of $10 million in 2010.

Jones said Georgia State's balance is used to repair and replace current facilities and equipment and to buy new facilities. Georgia State has bought and renovated a number of buildings downtown.

"As our student body grows, so too, do our needs," she said. "As a downtown institution with many real estate opportunities, it is even more important to be nimble and quick in our ability to act."

Audit raises questions

The audit raises more serious questions in a few cases about how administrators used student fee money.

In July 2008, for instance, a University of West Georgia band director, initiated a trip in which about $50,000 in student fees, tuition and taxpayer money was spent to attend the International Society of Music Educators conference in Bologna, Italy, auditors said. The conferences was attended by two faculty members and seven members of a jazz percussion group. Five family members or friends of those on the trip went along. While the conference ran for five days, the band director planned an 11-day trip. It included, for the two faculty members, all-day tours of Florence and Venice. The school wound up subsidizing the trip for the friends and family, auditors said.

Two years earlier, the audit said, $78,000 in student fee money was used for the marching band to travel to Antigua to perform at an independence day celebration. The band director took along "friends of the band" and family members and alumni, all of whom were supposed to pay their own way. Auditors said they didn't.

Rob Douthit, the school's director of media relations, said the band director, who wasn't named in the audit, was removed from his administrative duties and put on a plan to repay some of the expenses. He left the school in 2010 and could not be reached for comment. The school also is giving travel requests a higher level of scrutiny.

Auditors said Terrance Smith, vice president for student affairs at Fort Valley State University, took several trips using student activity fee revenue. The audit called his use of student activity fees "abusive, wasteful and potentially fraudulent."

In one case, Smith was reimbursed $3,000 for travel to Puerto Rico for a professional conference. Auditors said it was "highly unlikely" he attended the conference.

Board of Regents officials said the Fort Valley case was referred to the state Attorney General's Office where it is still under investigation. The system said "disciplinary action" was taken against Smith, but wouldn't specify.

In a statement, Smith said he submitted "supportive travel documents" on his return from each trip. He said he voluntarily reimbursed the cost of two lunches, one dinner and one night's stay for various trips over the course of three or four years.

"All of my university travel was approved in accordance with standing university policies and procedures and was directly related to my professional responsibilities and development," he said.

John Millsaps, spokesman for the University System's central office, said internal auditors will be conducting their own review of student fee spending in the future.

The state audit only looked at select universities and auditors didn't list problems at every school. Students paying the fees, now that the HOPE scholarship isn't chipping in, may be the state's next line of defenses against potential misuse.

"When people realized that a lot of the increase in our tuition and fees was in our fees, and that HOPE didn't cover it, that got a lot of people angry," said Katherine Paist, a rising junior at Georgia State University. "A lot of student and parents alike are watching the situation more closely."

By The Numbers

Student fees at Georgia colleges have risen dramatically in recent years, in part because the Board of Regents tacked on a special fee to make up for state budget cuts. Below is the amount of fees collected by the University System schools:
 
 
$221.7 mil.
 
Fiscal 2007
 
 
 
$242.8 mil.
 
Fiscal 2008
 
 
 
$302 mil.
 
Fiscal 2009
 
 
$384.4 mil.
 
*Fiscal 2010
 
 
 
$408 mil.
 
*Fiscal 2011
 
 
 
$505 mil.
 
*Fiscal 2012
 
* Estimates by the University System. Figures likely higher for fiscal 2011 and 2012.
 
Source: University System
 
 

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