Hidden College Fees Fund Politics

Posted on April 02, 2003 | Type: Op-Ed
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A thief who steals one dollar from a million people is still a thief-and a millionaire. Over a million dollars have been taken from college students at Arizona's three public universities and funneled into an obscure group called the Arizona Students' Association (ASA) since that organization's inception in the late 1970s. The group obtains its revenue by charging a dollar fee each semester: that's two dollars per year per student, in addition to summer sessions.

In the case of the ASA, the thief has also opened up a Pandora's box of partisan political activity. Although the ASA's mission statement claims that it works on behalf of "all students," its affiliation with dozens of political organizations belies that claim. ASA has been a longtime affiliate of a national activist group called the United States Students' Association.

The USSA lists ASA as part of its nationwide coalition for "students and staff of statewide student organizations." Among the other organizations in the USSA coalition: the Young Communist League, a Muslim homosexual activist group called "Al-Fatiha," the National Council of La Raza, and nearly a hundred other such activist groups.

The ASA does not include information about those affiliations on its website. That is probably a shrewd policy, since two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, Rosenberger v. University of Virginia and Southworth v. University of Wisconsin, require mandatory student fees to be "viewpoint neutral."

Apart from having a veritable zoo of political affiliations, the ASA also promotes some questionable activities on Arizona campuses. The organization holds an annual "student empowerment" workshop, where students have the distinct honor of listening to speeches given by such national icons as cast members from MTV's "The Real World."

That's right: the ASA has invited such worthy notables as Danny and Kelley from Real World New Orleans to talk to Arizona students on the importance of "empowerment."

The ASA's disconnect with student needs manifested itself a few years back, when the ASA launched a campaign to install laptops at each university so that students could "check up" on the legislature and review bills addressing student issues.

Unfortunately, the ASA failed to understand that the universities already had computer labs for that purpose. Those laptops never made it to the campuses.

Of course, the ASA's questionable constitutionality and the wastefulness of its expenditures are really secondary concerns. The more fundamental question is whether taxpayer-supported universities should be in the business of forcing students to support the ASA at all. In other words, we should be more concerned about the existence of this Pandora's box than about which demons actually fly out of it.

Even the ASA's core mission contains controversial elements. According to the Arizona Board of Regents' policy manual, the ASA exists to "educate students, serve as a collective voice to promote excellence in education, and guarantee students access to the highest quality education as nearly free as possible." Those may be noble goals, but it does not follow that students should be "taxed" to support them.

In theory, the ASA does allow students to opt out of paying the fee. But students rarely notice the ASA fee, since it shows up as a mere footnote in the tuition bill among a slew of other university fees. That practice is hardly consistent with full disclosure. A fairer method would be to collect the fee only if a student clearly indicates his or her desire to pay it. For those students who would like to exercise their right to opt out of the fee, the refund form can be found online at http://www.azstudents.org/publications/asa_refund_form.pdf.

If the ASA truly represents the needs of Arizona's college students, it should have no problem raising the funds it needs through voluntary donations. When the Arizona Board of Regents granted the ASA a license to steal from Arizona students, it also opened a Pandora's box of partisan political activity. The Board must not continue to look the other way while thousands of students and their families continue to be fleeced. The Board of Regents should close the box and allow students the freedom to choose for themselves what causes they will support.

--Oubai Shahbandar is a senior at Arizona State University and an intern at the Goldwater Institute, an independent research organization based in Phoenix.

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