TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Junk fees add baggage to college tuition bills

Historical trivia fact: Until 2006, American phone consumers were paying a 3 percent tax on long-distance phone calls — to cover the cost of fighting the Spanish-American War. Which, uh, ended in 1898.

If you think that’s irritating and pointless, try reading the typical college tuition bill.

Because states are sensitive to the appearance of jacking tuition through the roof, add-on fees have become the end-run of choice — the equivalent of the airline that charges extra for a box of animal crackers.

A new entry in the “They Did WHAT? Fee” sweepstakes: Massachusetts’ Worcester State University, which charges a $72-a-year fee for bringing a car to campus. Or, for not bringing a car to campus.

Administrators told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that the “parking/pedestrian fee” helps cover the cost of maintaining campus walkways, conceding that many students are forced to walk because of the school’s chronic parking shortage.

Other increasingly common tack-ons include “debt service” fees (to cover the cost of bonds that colleges issue when they borrow money to construct buildings), as well as fees for transit systems, technology, infirmaries, recreational facilities and even psychological counseling services. A few even add a surcharge for their use of “green energy.” While fees typically are understood as paying for frills or extras, it’s hard to consider buses and Band-Aids to be “luxury items” at a public university.

In 2011, a group of 75 college journalists spot-checked schools across the country, and discovered that in at least a few cases, the amount of add-ons had increased by more than 50 percent over a four-year span. And that’s just the beginning — in Colorado, a state audit found, fees went up 142 percent between 2006 and 2010.

Using the students’ research, USA Today reported that fees can, at times, make up a quarter of the total tuition bill — and are sometimes uncovered by financial aid, leaving students and their families to absorb the full hit.

If you’re reporting on college costs and just comparing year-to-year tuition, you may be missing an important piece of the story.

Colleges are supposed to report to the U.S. Department of Education every year about the true and complete cost of a college education — and the DOE is supposed to share this information online. Although the Department’s online database has been up and running for a couple of years, the data can be buggy and should be relied on only as a starting point. There’s no substitute for pulling the college’s numbers yourself — and a snapshot of a tuition bill with all of the junk fees highlighted can make for a compelling graphic illustration as well.