The Metropolitan sat down with President Ginny Arthur on Nov. 17 for an hour-long conversation. She discussed student fees in detail, as well as plans for new degree programs and growth at Metro State. This is the second in a monthly series of interviews.
We are focusing in this edition on student fees. Can you talk about your philosophy on them?
I think student fees have been around at least as long as the modern American university, going back to 1800s or 1900s. In some ways it’s like the principle of paying taxes. I live in the city of St. Paul and I pay property taxes and that gives us libraries, for example. Now whether I ever go to the library and take out a book, I am still supporting it and there is an intangible benefit to having a library available.
Some students are upset about fees they pay for services they don’t use. For example, some students don’t want to pay the activity fee because they don’t have time to get involved in clubs and organizations. What do you say to those students?
For the student activity fee, the issue is whether an individual takes part in an activity or not, is it good for the campus to have it? And should everyone contribute to it?
The controversy over user fees versus supporting all activities by charging all students—this flares up every once in awhile in higher education. I worry about imposing a user fee that would absolutely shut out some students from ever participating. They would lose out on a valuable experience and the university community is a lot poorer for not having activities. We have a good set of activities, and students can form a new club and get funding. The soccer club didn’t exist three years ago; it just took an enthusiastic group of students to start it.
I think our society tends to be swinging toward the idea that there’s not a common good. Everyone should pay individually. It’s the whole tax bill debate that’s going in Washington now. I’m old school I suppose, but there is something about being a member of a community and contributing to the roads, libraries and public schools. It’s the same thing within our university community. There’s a benefit to having activities available even if at this moment you’ve decided not to participate.
In the omnibus higher education bill passed last spring, there is a provision requiring a student body vote to approve any increase in the student activity fee of more than 2 percent. The Minnesota State systems office is now working on implementing that policy on campuses. This coming Legislative session, Rep. Drew Christensen (R-Savage) plans to reintroduce a stronger provision that would prohibit mandatory student activity fees at public colleges and universities. Supporters of the bill say this is a matter of freedom of speech—so a student’s money doesn’t go to groups they don’t like—and that it saves students money. How do you respond to that?
It does come back to the issue of the common good. Isn’t the university community better off because we have a student fee and can provide an array of activities for the student body? The activity fee helps to support Theater Underground for example. Maybe you’re not an actor, but you go to their productions.
We have to look very broadly at the issue of free speech. I think it’s mitigated by the fact that any student can gather a group and form a club. If there’s a group that wants to form Students for the DFL, they can get funding—and so can Students for the Republican Party.
So I am saddened by that approach [of user fees]. It has really unintended consequences for the students who would experiment, who would try new activities, but can’t afford to. We know that participating in student activities helps when you’re out looking for work because they are indicators to employers that you have interests, that you take initiative. This kind of approach overlooks the educational and developmental opportunity that student activities offer. It’s a relatively small fee for that.
You see this in public schools at the K-12 level, especially in athletics. Kids can’t participate in sports like hockey because it’s so expensive—the participation fees plus equipment costs. In other communities, it’s covered and built into the tax base so that every student can participate.
Similarly, some students who take online classes or ride the bus to campus object to the parking fee.
The history of the parking ramp is that we wanted to be able to build the Science Education Center. We felt that it was a real deficit to the university not to have good science facilities. We want to serve students who want to be science majors and can’t afford to go to the University of Minnesota. In order for us to build the science center, the city of St. Paul said you have to increase your parking. There’s a ratio of how many parking spaces you have to have [for each student, faculty, staff member]. We were required to build the ramp.
There was conversation with students who were here at the time. Some of whom may still be here, but since this occurred six or seven years ago, I expect many of those students have graduated. I think students understood at the time that if we want science facilities, then this is part of the cost.
We have to pay for the interest on the debt and the maintenance of the facility out of the fees generated by the users. There is a board policy and state law backing up the state policy which says that people have to contribute equally—employees can’t pay less than students. We have to factor in how many users we are going to have, and then try to spread cost over them. We don’t make money on parking.
We are able to have many more events on campus than we ever did in the past --- that’s brought enrichment to campus for students. We charge them for parking which helps us keep the cost down as much as we possibly can. Every year we examine the parking fee.
We know some students don’t use the parking ramp. So we do subsidize bus passes. The Student Senate puts in money, and we put in the balance. That’s one way we help mitigate the cost for those students who don’t drive a car to campus..
The parking fee must help cover the cost of parking at all of our locations. At MCTC, students can park in their ramp but we pay MCTC for that. For our baccalaureate programs at Normandale and North Hennepin, we have parking rates we pay them. We pay something toward maintenance of the parking lots at Midway; it’s built into our rent. And the same at Hennepin Tech in Brooklyn Park. So there are a lot of costs at all these facilities.
We went to the Student Senate last spring and to talk about exempting online courses from the parking fee and how it affect the students overall. The Student Senate felt that it would shift a big cost burden to those students taking in-person classes.
The health care fee is new to students. How was it created?
We first started charging students last spring. There is a [Minnesota State] board policy that every college and university must offer health services of some kind to students and that it’s paid for by a fee. For us, this was a bit of dilemma and we spent a lot of time researching opportunities and put out a competitive bidding process to try to find a service that would be available to our students regardless of where they’re attending class or if they’re an online student. For that reason, a fixed clinic in St. Paul doesn’t necessarily help the student who is taking all their classes in Minneapolis.
We selected Fairview Health Services which offers an online, telemedicine option. If a student gets a response from that saying they should see a doctor, they can access any Fairview clinic which are all over the Twin Cities and the state. We are in the first year of that so we are evaluating if that’s the best approach or not. It’s new for Fairview too. We are working with them on improvements.
This was the most cost effective way to do it. The student fee also funds the position of health care navigator [Jodee Fitzgerald, Coordinator of Healthcare and Wellness Services]. That position is to reach out to students to help them find options on the open market or go into a state program if a student is eligible.
We will be reevaluating the fee to see if it’s at the right level and that it’s fitting the needs of students.
The student technology fee rose this year, from $6 to $7 a credit. Will students see a tangible difference, like new tech they didn’t have before?
It’s hard to see. We’ve been upgrading our wireless substantially. We’ve upgraded servers. You will have faster service, more secure service—but would you notice that? I don’t know. You might notice when you first log in.
We do have one of the lowest tech fees in the Minnesota State system. And we know we have to stay on the cutting edge of technology so that our students are getting the best access and the best educational opportunities.
We all want to have wireless access and want it to work instantly. We want computer labs we can walk into any time the building is open. We want printing. Technology is expensive when you’re doing it on the scale of a whole university. And it changes rapidly. The life of any piece of technology may only be three or four years before you have to upgrade.
Technology is a real driver of inflation in higher ed. That’s why we don’t wrap it into tuition; we isolate it as a fee. It gets the university management team to think about how we can best spend this fee to get the most technology we can for students. It contains the cost.
A lot of our students are tech-savvy or have strong preferences for software. Is there a way for them to share feedback and ideas on campus technology?
There’s a couple of ways to do that. The Chief Information Officer Steve Reed will present to and seek input from the Student Senate. He has quite a few student workers who pass along student opinions. We have university councils that we’ve set up with places for student representatives on all of them. We would love one or two students on the technology advisory council. We also administered a survey last spring, system wide. We are open to figuring out better ways to gather student feedback.
Plans are to grow student enrollment to 15,000 by 2025. How will students see evidence of that growth---in new degree programs? More online course offerings? Larger in-person class sizes?
All of the above. There are several parts to the growth strategy. One is new degree programs. We’re in the process of developing cyber security, which is really a tremendous growth field and lots of great opportunities for students who pursue that. So that is likely to bring in more students. Another program in development is the field of data analytics, data mining. This is how Amazon knows how to pop up the right ad, and airlines price their seats. This is pervading every area.
The College of Nursing and Health Sciences has a new degree completion program in development. A lot of students get two year associate degrees in lab tech, radiology and technical fields. Once they’re out working for awhile, there is an opportunity for them to advance in their career, but they need a bachelor’s degree. The College of Sciences is also thinking about new degrees.
The faculty are creative. They are looking out at how the world is changing and what preparation students need. New degree programs is an avenue for attracting more students. Online is growing in popularity. There’s a group working on a strategic plan. We certainly could spread our reach beyond the Twin Cities.
Class sizes may go up a little bit, but not substantially. We are not equipped to grow class sizes much because we don’t have very many large classrooms here. You’re never going to see more than low 30’s. Never will have big lecture classes. Could go up a little bit but will never go up significantly.
A demographic shift is happening in the state of Minnesota. Soon there will be more people over the age of 65 living in the state than under the age of 18. This is a really bad ratio. Usually you want a lot of young people who are working, paying taxes to support older, retired people.
It also means a crisis for employers. They are going to have a lot of people retiring from their jobs and there are not enough younger people with the right credentials to fill those jobs. So many employers in the Twin Cities are thinking about what they are going to do. With our Individualized Studies degree we can go in and work with employers.
Hennepin County is a great example; it’s a huge employer. They know that they are going to have almost half of their workforce retire in the next five years. And they have a lot of people working in associate level or high school diploma level jobs. They would like to grow people from within and they have a tuition remission benefit. At Metro State’s tuition rate, a Hennepin county employee could finish their degree with basically no out-of-pocket costs.
In the state of Minnesota, we have high degree of educational attainment. More than 40% of the population has a bachelor’s degree. But there are many more—millions—that have some college, but no degree. And that’s exactly what we do at Metro State—we help people finish their degree.