Making College More Student Friendly (Part 1: Seg Fees)

Another new Education Optimists series-- this one is focused on how to reform our colleges and universities to become more student-friendly. First up, seg fees.

Last night as I observed my Twitter feed, I noticed a tweet from a student journalist about a particular aspect of UW System policy on segregated fees. According to System financial rule F50, in order for an organization to receive seg fees, it must "require that all leadership positions in the organization be held by students enrolled on a fee-paying basis for at least half-time; as used in this policy, "half-time" status means enrollment for a minimum of six credits as an undergraduate student, and enrollment for a minimum of four credits as a graduate student, except that for UW-Colleges students "half-time" status means enrollment for a minimum of three credits."

This strikes me as a good example of a well-intentioned policy with unintended consequences.

The purpose of the policy may be to ensure that only students hold leadership positions, preventing others in the community from accessing student resources and/or controlling agendas. That makes sense. Maybe it is also intended to ensure that students who hold leadership positions have "skin in the game"--e.g. paid their seg fees. That makes less sense, since many students didn't themselves pay their seg fees: their parents or financial aid did.

But this half-time requirement systematically disenfranchises the more than 23,000 undergraduate students in the UW System who, for whatever reason, are attending college part-time. Statistics show that part-time enrollment is a temporary situation for some students, and a strategy for college attendance for others. For example, a student may be full-time throughout college, but due to family obligations or a short-fall of financial resources, or difficulty with some hard courses, may drop to part-time for a given term. Or, the student's approach to financing college may be to work 3/4 time, and take a half-time load. Such students are disproportionately first-generation, racial/ethnic minorities, and/or from low-income families. They are often somewhat older, and more likely to be women.

Participation and leadership in student organizations is important. It's not only a credit to one's resume, and a great way to build social networks, but it is also a predictor of college persistence. Thus, it is probably especially important for students who are otherwise disconnected from campus to have the opportunity--if they so choose, can fit it in, and are chosen--to take the role as a leader. Saying that they can't (or if they do, their organization can't access seg fees) is passing judgement on their abilities, rights, and opportunities based on a single atribute of their college attendance pattern: how many credits they take. This serves to preserve and maintain the advantage of students who can afford and manage to schedule full-time attendance, and perpetuates the interests of full-time students over part-time ones.

This rule could be modified in ways that maintain the intent--to ensure leaders are students--while removing the unintended consequences. For example, why not require of leaders (item 2c in F50) exactly what's required of members (item 2b): "Students enrolled for a minimum of one semester hour of credit at the UW institution for which the organization is seeking official recognition?" Or, require that the person has taken at least 6 credit hours on campus in the last 2 years? If a modification is sought, consider this: Is it really the case that there is a systematic problem of non-students taking leadership roles in student organizations, such that a blanket rule that disenfranchises 15% of UW System undergraduates is truly needed?

Lest you think this is a minor issue that hardly ever comes up, take a look at today's Badger Herald. At last night's ASM meeting, student Nneka Akubeze was nominated to fill the position of vice-chair, and "Student Services Finance Committee Chair Sarah Neibart said because Akubeze, a special student, is enrolled in four credits, she is not eligible for a leadership position in ASM." A debate ensued. I do not know Akubeze, but it seems to me that debate was long overdue.