TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: College activity fees add hundreds to tuition bills; state laws may offer a peek under the hood

Student activity fees can be like those last-minute mystery charges tacked onto the bottom line when you’re buying a new car. Extended warranty? Deluxe floor mats? And what exactly is “undercoating,” anyway?

And just like the sticker shock that buyers experience at the auto dealership, mounting student fees — at Rutgers University, the typical full-time student’s bill includes $2,633 in mandatory fees, about 21 percent of the total cost of attending the New Jersey college — can be an unwelcome surprise at tuition time.

Open-records laws can help college journalists better explain where those puzzling surcharges are going — or at least, are supposed to go. In at least three states — Virginia, Tennessee and (as of 2011) North Dakota — targeted state disclosure laws require colleges to provide detailed public disclosure of how they spend student fees. The statutes were intended in part to shed light on the extent to which student fees are subsidizing athletics, which are widely believed — incorrectly — to be self-sustaining or even profit-making.

Even in states without such specific laws, a breakdown of where student fees are spent should be obtainable from any public college by way of an open-records request, either to the student government association or to the vice president for student affairs. (Commonly, the student government has a say in appropriating all or part of student activity fees, but with the ultimate sign-off of an administrator in student affairs.)

One wrinkle to watch for: In many states, the law requires a student body referendum to increase fees or to direct how they are spent. Find out if your state does — the answer may come as a surprise even to the university administrators who are supposed to know better.

But read the fine print; the student vote may be, to the disappointment of the voters, merely advisory. If the administration is overriding the student vote and substituting its own priorities for theirs, that’s a story too.

The federal Student Right-to-Know Act — discussed further here — requires colleges (including almost all private schools) to make available a detailed breakdown on the total cost of attending, including fees and living expenses as well as tuition. So even though fee increases may be a camouflaged way of raising tuition, a little public-records sleuthing can easily pierce the disguise.