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Utah State Auditor John Dougall listens to a speaker during a meeting held by the Alpine School District Board of Education on Tuesday, March 10, 2020, at the Alpine School District Offices in American Fork. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

Some of the mandatory fees charged to university students in Utah are unreasonable and should be re-evaluated, according to a new audit.

The audit, issued Tuesday by the Utah Office of the State Auditor, stated that multiple mandatory fees imposed on college students in the Utah System of Higher Education, or USHE, “fail (the) reasonable fee test.”

In the report, the state auditor’s office, which is led by State Auditor John Dougall, defines mandatory fees as “charges USHE Institutions impose on all attending students.”

“Prior to approving a Mandatory Fee, the (Utah State Board of) Regents do not appear to test whether that fee is reasonable,” auditors wrote. “Failing to limit Mandatory Fees to reasonable boundaries has resulted in a growing array of Mandatory Fees.”

The audit focuses specifically on the University of Utah and Utah State Universities, the two public research universities in the state.

Auditors wrote that service fees should be related to specific services and only charged to students who benefit from those services, as opposed to tuition fees which all students pay and benefit from.

One such fee is the University of Utah’s “Study Abroad fee,” which is paid by all students, even those who don’t participate in the school’s learning abroad program.

“The UOU uses that revenue to offset the costs for the limited number of students who participate in the Study Abroad program,” the audit said. “While all students pay the few, very few students participate in the program. As such, the Study Abroad fee fails to meet the reasonable fee test because it fails to provide proportional benefit to the fee payers.”

Auditors also brought attention to the school’s “Utility fee,” another fee that is charged to every student.

“It is reasonable to assume education-related utility costs would be paid from the UOU’s general fund and a separate student fee should not be imposed,” wrote state auditors. “As such, the Utility fee fails to meet the reasonable fee test because it funds an expenditure that is normally paid from the university’s general fund.”

At Utah State University, students pay a “Library fee” that the university uses to “subsidize the cost of library resources, including for non-students.”

“It is reasonable to assume education related library costs would be paid from the USU’s general fund as part of tuition that USUS imposes,” the audit said, concluding that “the Library fee fails to meet the reasonable fee test.”

Other concerns raised in the audit include that USHE institutions “fail to comply with fee setting policy,” Utah’s “Truth-in-Tuition” requirements are not being followed and that the “Truth-in-Tuition process fails to provide expected transparency and accountability.”

State auditors recommended the Utah State Board of Regents, which has the statutory authority to impose tuition costs and fees, require higher education institutions to “eliminate all mandatory fees that fail to meet the reasonable fee test” and “clearly define in policy what constitutes a reasonable fee.”

“All mandatory fees should be re-evaluated by each college and university as well as the newly formed Utah Board of Higher Education to determine whether each fee meets the reasonable fee test,” Dougall said in a press release Tuesday. “Fees that fail to meet this test should be eliminated. Students should receive a direct benefit for each fee they pay.”

Dougall added that “students should receive a partial refund of those fees for services they were unable to access during the COVID-19 closures.”

In a written response to the requests of state auditors that is attached to the audit, the board of regents said it “will review the current fee policy … and discuss how to better define student fees and when institutions should administer them.”

“The Board will review all student fees and consider which fees should be rolled into tuition based on Regent policy,” the board of regents wrote.

The board of regents went on to say that it would “continue to work with institutions to identify and use the most effective method of notifying students regarding tuition and mandatory fee increases.”

“The Board will also amend Regent policy to require a student representative to attend truth-in-tuition hearings and report a meaningful summary of the student feedback to the board of trustees in a public meeting.”

The full report can be viewed at http://reporting.auditor.utah.gov.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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