Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Friday, September 21, 2018

Straight from print: Where is my money going? The student activity fee explained

$88.50 per student every semester pays for events, clubs and student leaders

Straight from print: Where is my money going? The student activity fee explained

This article originally appeared in The Eagle’s October 21 special edition.

If you read your tuition bill this semester, you’re likely to find an $88.50 undergraduate activity fee, a charge that goes towards student groups, programming, and events like Charli XCX’s August concert or speakers such as Hasan Minhaj.

Every penny of that fee goes into the same account for a total of $1,070,000, according to Michael Elmore, the senior director of University Center and Student Activities. Once student support payments (stipends paid to student leaders) are deducted, the total is distributed between three different organizational bodies: AU Club Council, Student Government and Student Media Board. Every officially recognized student organization on campus, from club sports to student magazines, falls under one of those three sections and receives a cut of the remaining budget.

All three of these groups send representatives to the Budget Advisory Committee (BAC). The representatives have an annual budget meeting in April to split the total by percentage between themselves. This year, the budget landed roughly on 56 percent for SG, 25 percent for Media Board and 19 percent for AUCC, according to Elmore.

The $88.50 every student pays in activity fees goes toward funding student organizations, their activities and their leaders, but how does that money break down between the groups, and is it enough?

Student Support Payments

Back in the 1970s, AU student leaders made the decision to allocate money to pay leaders for their work, according to Elmore. The stipends, now called student support payments, are designed to help student leaders pay their bills and lead their organizations to the best of their abilities without having to work a second job.

“A lot of the time jobs that are done by students at this University are like having part time or full time jobs and so that’s why student support exists,” Student Government Comptroller Shannon McDermott said. “They don’t want to keep students away from being able to pursue these positions if they’re at a financial disadvantage.”

Fifteen percent of the total student activity fee fund is allocated to payments for student leaders, according to Elmore. Student groups operate like a non-profit, he said, so no more than 15 percent of the total budget for all three groups can be designated for salaries.

The stipend for each position is determined by a tier system, according to Elmore. SG also has a copy written in its governing bylaws. Levels in the tier system are determined by how “on call” each leader must be, and each position is assigned to one of 11 levels, ranging in pay from under $500 to $10,000 for the academic year. Student leaders from SG, AUCC and Student Media Board all have leaders that are paid using this system.

The tiers are determined not by hours worked, but by how responsive that leader must be to people and needs outside their organization, Elmore said. For example, student leaders who must meet regularly with and be accountable to University administrators are paid more.

“There’s a distinction between ‘it’s hard to do this work so I should get paid more’ and ‘there are people beyond my peers that expect things of me in this role,’” Elmore said.

These expectations are highest for the SG President, Elmore said, which is why the role is the only student position at the tier’s highest level of $10,000.

Current SG President Devontae Torriente said he spends an average of 20 hours per week on his position, and that most of that time is spent in meetings with other SG members, administrators, students or trustees.

“I can’t intern and what not because I need to be here whenever I’m needed and if anything happens, I have to be available and accessible for that,” Torriente said.

Managing a Budget

In addition to receiving stipends, each organization’s leaders must manage the individual budgets that they are allocated. Student Media Board, for example, divides its share of the activity fee between nine organizations, including The Eagle. That’s true as well for AUCC and SG, which allocate funding to different members based on their needs.

Student Media Board Co-Chair for 2016-2017 Andrea Lin said that dividing the budget between nine organizations can prove to be challenging, particularly because the amount that each organization receives and the needs of each media outlet varies drastically.

“Just because not every group gets the same amount of money, doesn't mean that it’s not enough for that group. It’s all relative depending on the organization,” Lin said.

Student Media received $211,913.50 for this fiscal year, but Lin said she worries that as the media organizations grow and develop new needs, the budget may not match the necessities.

“As we have more people, we are definitely going to need more money to create growing volumes of magazines for growing volumes of readers,” Lin said.

Just across the hall in MGC, the SG staff balances the same concerns with their allocation of funds. SG receives $508,819.50, according to McDermott, which is over half of the Student Activity fee budget.

However, most of that money doesn’t go toward policy making or senate meetings. Instead, it funds programming through two main channels: the Kennedy Political Union and the Student Union Board. KPU and SUB each received $199,000 and $190,000 respectively of SG’s overall budget this year, according to McDermott. $119,819.50 is then left over in the budget for costs related to Founder’s Day, Women’s Initiative and more.

KPU uses its money and works with other groups to bring the best possible speakers to campus and host events that are relatable and interesting for students, KPU director Valeria Ojeda-Avitia said.

“I think it’s just a matter of co-sponsoring with relevant organizations to make sure that [we get] the most out of our money, the biggest bang for our buck with more speakers in bigger spaces and getting organizations to co-sponsor that are relevant to that topic, so those organizations get the most out of it,” Ojeda-Avitia said.

The amount of money that KPU receives under the SG budget depends on the success of the previous year according to Ojeda-Avitia. She said she works hard to ensure KPU’s events represent the students who pay the fee that helps run her organization.

“I think it’s super important to remember, ‘who is paying into this? What kind of opinions are paying into this?’ because they need to be represented if they are paying into it,’” Ojeda-Avitia said. “We don’t forget that we are privileged to be working with student money, so it’s our responsibility to best represent it as well as we can.”

AU Club Council Outreach Director Kenzie Phillips also expressed the value of the student activity fee. Phillips said she highly supports funding clubs for any activities that might bring the University together or add value to the campus experience, such as bringing speakers or outside vendors to AU.

Every week, Phillips creates an infographic that is posted outside the AUCC office and online to show how much money the organization has allocated that week to different student groups. The numbers vary drastically depending on the needs of organizations each week; so far this year AUCC allocations have ranged from $1,603 during the first two weeks of school to $22,950.00 for the week of Sept. 16-22, according to Phillips.

“I think the biggest thing for us is that we hope that people don’t have concerns about us not being transparent because at the end of the day, it’s student money that we are working with, and we are students, so no one understands how important that is more than we do,” Phillips said. “And we want to give people money. We are dedicated to getting people the money they need as long as it’s for an appropriate reason.”

sscovel@theeagleonline.com and crozen@theeagleonline.com


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