USA Today: Schools hike (and hide) student fees to support athletic programs

USA Today’s reporters put state and federal disclosure laws and NCAA regulations to work in publishing a series of stories showing how much students and their parents at 222 Division I public universities pay in fees, often unknowingly, to support their schools’ athletic programs.

Their reporting found, for example, that when students at Norfolk State University in Virginia write their check to the school for the 2010-11 school year, nearly a quarter of the total — $1,440.60 — will go to support the school’s athletic programs. And while NSU tops the list in terms of the percentage of a student’s tuition payment that goes to its athletic program, it’s unlikely to be alone in having to answer questions about its spending priorities and rising tuition bills as word of the newspaper’s findings spreads.

Among other things, the story in today’s paper found, adjusting for inflation, student payments to support sports programs at the listed schools rose about 18 percent between 2005 and 2009.

For student news media, the report is a nice example of the power of freedom of information laws. But it did take some doing, and the series includes a story by USA reporter Steve Berkowitz pointing out how difficult it can sometimes be for students and parents to see exactly how their fees are used.

Berkowitz notes that Virginia and Tennessee are the only states in the country that have specific laws requiring public colleges to disclose how student fees are allocated, though he notes that some states, such as Maryland and California, have rules or policies mandating disclosure.

While that may be, information about how much money is collected from students and how it is spent by a public school should be routinely available under a state’s traditional open records law. Such laws, which exist in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, require that all records compiled by a public agency (including essentially all public universities, colleges and community colleges) must be disclosed upon request unless the record falls under a listed exemption.Budgetary information is the “meat and potatoes” of open records law and is rarely exempt from disclosure. (To obtain such information, some states require only a verbal request. In others, or where a verbal request is denied, you can use our handy-dandy, automated FOI records request letter generator.)

Information detailing how private universities allocate student fees was absent from the USA Today report and is generally not subject to mandatory disclosure by a state open records law, since they don’t fall under the “public agency” definition.

Still, private school student media seeking more information about how much money their athletic programs annually collect and spend are not altogether out of luck. The federal Student Right to Know Act requires all schools that receive federal funding to file a yearly report about their athletic budgets with the U.S. Department of Education. If your private school won’t voluntarily release the report on their end, a simple freedom of information request to DOE asking to see their copy should do the trick.