Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Wisconsin Idea: Student Fee Allocation Norms in Wisconsin Surfacing in Other Big 10 Schools

This post is authored by Maria K. Giannopoulos,  Vice Chair of the Associated Students of Madison at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She can be reached at 

In an article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this week, Anil Wadhwani of Northwestern and Jonathan Green of Cambridge describe how the Northwestern University administration is giving students a voice in the college budget process.

To some, giving students a voice regarding the use of their fees may be a no-brainer, but at many institutions administrators and staff unilaterally decide the distribution of fees and ideas for student services. The authors cite "shortsighted vision" and high student turnover as possible reasons to limit student engagement in the fee process. But at Northwestern, administration finally realized that despite these potential issues, student input was valuable and attainable.

In Wisconsin, our conception of student power is even stronger. The power of allocating and deciding on the use of fees is codified in state statute and in University of Wisconsin (UW) system policy. Chapter 36.09(5) in state statute declares, “Students shall have the primary responsibility for the formulation and review of policies concerning student life, services, and interests." Under Financial Policy 50, set by the UW System Board of Regents, Segregated University Fees (SUF) are allocated by students in consultation with the chancellor and subject to the final confirmation of the Board of Regents, in accordance with the statue mentioned above.

The system afforded by Wisconsin’s higher education governing documents highlights the shared governance that we students, faculty, staff, and administration use to make decisions. When all voices are present at the table, an outcome more fitting of the representative groups comes to fruition, rather than decisions made in the absence of key stakeholders. In the case of student fees, students allocate money to student groups and services. Who knows better than students about the needs and requirements of student life and services? No one.

Wadhwani and Green note that the committee at Northwestern is one that mirrors the SUF Allocation Committees across the state of Wisconsin. “The committee isn't a focus group, and it doesn't merely rubber-stamp the decisions of higher-ups. Rather, it allows Northwestern students to suggest concrete solutions to real problems with the undergraduate experience.”

This is a promising victory for student power in private colleges. Northwestern is the only private university within the Big 10, although University of Michigan and Penn State have private roots. Even though many private universities do have student input, they may only be bound to Trustees or a Board of Directors instead of a state statute or Board of Regents like we have in Wisconsin. The same could also be said for public institutions in other states nationwide.

Students in Wisconsin have a voice on how their money is spent, and it's about time that other institutions emulate the model we have here.