Kalan K. Birnie
Late last semester, a groundswell of student sentiment, spearheaded by Dons For Fair Tuition (DFFT), protested against a proposed 4.9% increase in tuition and room and board fees. The movement came to a head with a protest outside the Dec. 6 Board of Trustees meeting, where the tuition increase was on the agenda.
Dozens of students gathered outside the Handlery Room on Lone Mountain, singing chants about the cost of tuition and bearing protest signs. As each member of the Board of Trustees arrived, the protestors handed them a printed list of student demands. The demands included increased funding for low-income students, the adoption of a “Financial Aid Bill of Rights,” more student representation in financial decision-making processes, and increased transparency and reaffirmed commitment to serving financially insecure students.
Moved by the protests, the Board of Trustees came out during a break in their meetings to interact directly with the protestors, hearing their stories and how the tuition increase affected them. Students shared stories of being unable to afford groceries and healthcare, with many claiming they know other students who have turned to sex work to finance their education. Some board members expressed that this was the first time they were hearing these concerns.
Shortly afterward, the board voted nearly-unanimously to postpone the vote on the tuition increase until the University could provide them with more information about the concerns students faced. Speaking after the protest, DFFT organizer and ASUSF Vice President of Internal Affairs Cassie Murphy saw the postponement as a victory.
“I’ve never seen that happen before,” Murphy said. “I’ve never seen that level of person-to-person communication with the Board of Trustees, that wasn’t being filtered through administrators.”
The Foghorn reached out to the university for a statement but did not receive one in time for print.
According to the Board of Trustees page on the USF website, the University provided the Board with “supplemental information from the president and his cabinet about the university’s pricing philosophy for the recommended tuition, fees, residency and board rates for FY (Fiscal Year) 21 and the president shared with the board the administration’s written responses to the Fall 2019 ASUSF Senate List of Demands.”
The Foghorn requested to see the materials provided to the Board. We received the administration’s written response to the list of demands, but did not receive the “supplemental information.”
From Dec. 20-23, the unanimously voted via electronic ballot to authorize and approve the increase in tuition and room and board fees.
On Jan. 23, President Paul Fitzgerald announced, via an email to the USF community, the new rates of tuition, room, and board effective fall 2020.
The administration’s response to the list of demands goes point-by-point, addressing concerns students raised. With regard to the request for additional funding for low-income students, the administration affirmed that it would be “actively investigating creative proposals” to alleviate the financial burden on students as well as seeking “more opportunities for paid internships and/or providing academic credit for internships.”
The list of demands also called for increased student representation in the form of two added voting positions on the Board of Trustees for undergraduate students. In its current setup, no students have voting power on the Board, but certain senior members of ASUSF Senate are non-voting members of various Board of Trustees committees. The list also demands two more positions for students on the University Budget Advisory Committee (UBAC). The administration responded by pointing out that the charter of the University does not allow constituent representatives (the category in which student representatives would fall) to vote on the Board. The administration concluded that “the present number of student representatives on board committees is sufficient.”
The administration added an extensive section on changes being made to the Office of Financial Aid. Following repeated concerns raised by students about the office, the University submitted to a Standards of Excellence (SOE) review through the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), a nonprofit industry group focused on providing institutional resources and support relating to financial aid for higher education institutions.
As a result of the SOE review, the University will implement a number of new policies and programs. There will be weekly training programs for staff regarding financial policies and resources at the University so that fewer issues need to be advanced to higher-ups for guidance. The office also developed a new communication plan for keeping students and families up to date on financial aid issues. Starting in fall 2020, it will also launch a quarterly newsletter covering financial aid at the University.
February will be termed “Financial Aid Awareness Month,” during which the office will hold a number of informational sessions around campus relating to financial aid and handling student finance.
Last semester, many students raised issues concerning the frustrations of calling the Office of Financial Aid only to wait on hold for extended periods. To that effect, the office is instituting a new phone management system, tracking call volume, length, and wait times to ensure the office is better staffed to answer phones during peak hours.
The review also identified six vacant staff roles in the office but did not specify exact positions. Three have since been filled, and the University is still searching to fill the remaining three.
In addition, the University currently lacks both an assistant vice provost for Student Financial Services and a permanent director of financial aid.