Oregon lawmakers last week heard public testimony on multiple bills related to increasing transparency around the types of fees college students are required to pay.
The Oregon House Committee on Education Thursday discussed three bills related to making public the price of course materials before the start of the term, prominently displaying the price and breakdown of administratively-controlled mandatory fees, and clarifying the role of student government in its authority and autonomy over its budget.
House Bill 2919 would require public institutions to display the cost of course materials, such as textbooks, at the time students are registering for classes.
“This bill is so simple,” said Democratic Rep. Jeff Reardon, one of the chief sponsors for the bill, during a House Education Committee meeting Thursday. “It’s basically saying students are about ready to make a big financial decision — they’re going to sign up for a class. They’re going to buy some books and other materials — and we’re just saying that they should have the price of those materials readily available.”
The bill would require public colleges and universities to display the total cost of course materials and fees for no fewer than 75% of classes. The 25% leeway, Democratic Rep. Janeen Sollman, another chief sponsor, said, is to account for any late changes in the instructors teaching the class or changes in materials.
Multiple students spoke Thursday in favor of the bill at a virtual hearing.
“Students have a right to know how much they’ll be expected to pay for their materials in order to succeed in their classes,” Elizabeth Radcliffe, a student at the University of Oregon, testified. “As a low-income student on a full-ride scholarship, I’ve had personal experiences of struggling to afford textbook prices that I just wasn’t prepared for.”
Students also showed up to testify on behalf of other bills including House Bill 2542, which would require all Oregon public universities and colleges to display the price the mandatory fees students are required to pay, as well as where that money is being allocated.
“This term I paid $982.41 in fees. I wasn’t aware of the fees I had to pay, and for the most part, I don’t know what happens to the money I’m charged,” said Kassidy Fegles-Jones a sophomore at Western Oregon University.
Isaiah Boyd, President of the University of Oregon’s student government, said he was also in the same boat as far as not having clarity on mandatory fees.
“This term I’ve paid $787 in mandatory fees,” Boyd said. “While I was well aware that we were charged mandatory fees, I never really understood where or how I could get a breakdown of what these fees were or how I benefitted from them.”
Some of those mandatory fees go to services like wi-fi availability, which Oregon Democratic State Sen. Deb Patterson said should be covered in cost of tuition when she testified on behalf of the bill.
“Since 1999, these mandatory fees have increased by 30% more than tuition in the U.S., even more so, our students are not being given information on where their money is being spent,” Patterson said.
The core of House Bill 2542 is transparency, Boyd said.
Boyd’s testimony Thursday was especially relevant, as conversations over the transparency of mandatory student fees are ongoing at UO, due to the university athletic department’s recent proposal of a new mandatory fee that would require all incoming students to pay an extra roughly $30 per regular school term for access to sports tickets.
The Education Committee was also slated to hold a public hearing on another bill, House Bill 3012, Thursday, though it ran out of time and scheduled that hearing for a later date.
That bill relates to clarifying the autonomy that student governments have over their budget decisions — specifically in regard to incidental fees. Those are fees collected from students and allocated by the student government to different services and organizations such as student food pantries, student advocacy groups and cultural resource centers.
Oregon Democratic Rep. Rob Nosse is one of the chief sponsors of that bill and spoke briefly on it Thursday, citing a situation at Western Oregon University last year in which he said the university administration had attempted to block the student government’s ability to collect incidental fees.
“This past summer Western Oregon University was going to cancel the fee outright, without any process or input from the student government that established the fee. … They were literally going to say it didn’t have to be paid,” Nosse said. “This was wrong. This bill fixes that. It empowers university students by removing some loopholes that hinder a student government’s ability to exercise their role in the fees.”
Nosse was previously the executive director of the Oregon Student Association, an advocacy nonprofit, that is supporting that bill as well as other bills related to higher education this legislative session.
Democrat Rep. Paul Evans is the other chief sponsor of House Bill 3012.
“I just think if we actually want to practice democracy, these adults who are attending our public colleges and universities should have the ability to determine the priorities for this one particular type of student fee, and institutions really should have much less of a role in the decision-making,” Evans said. " If I was paying the amount of money that folks are paying at a public institution, I would want greater say over this particular type of fee, and that’s what this bill does.”
The Education Committee rescheduled the public hearing for that bill for its next meeting March 4.