Undergraduates who enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo this year paid $5,742 in tuition — less than many of their peers at public universities nationwide, one reason a California State University education is often lauded as a path to upward mobility for the state’s low-income students.

But they also had to pony up more than $4,000 in campus-based fees, bringing their total bill to nearly $10,000 — not including room and board.

“It’s a hard hit to the budget,” said Julia Favilla, a liberal studies major at Cal Poly.

While systemwide tuition at the nation’s largest public university has remained relatively flat since the end of the last recession, the CSU’s 23 campuses have been increasing mandatory fees they charge students, generating a total of nearly $700 million in the 2017-18 school year. Those fees pay for everything from marching band uniforms to mental health counseling, but campuses are also using them to cover core university expenses such as faculty salaries and computers, a state audit released Thursday found. Campuses failed to adequately justify the reasons for the fees — which vary from $4,201 at Cal Poly to $847 at Fresno State — State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote, and sometimes violated the university’s own policies in imposing them.

The fees could become increasingly important in the post-COVID economic crisis, as campuses look to make up for lost revenue from state government and students coping with unemployment and other financial pressures struggle to pay for college. The audit recommends that the legislature require campuses to conduct binding student votes on the fees, which could make such fees harder to adopt.

Like tuition, campus fees rose during the recession of 2008 as state support fell, but students did not see a reprieve when the economy improved. Instead, campus fees have grown by 52 percent on average since 2011, the audit found. The fees often aren’t covered by financial aid and “progressively undermine the Legislature’s ability to help control student costs,” Howle wrote.

Cal State argues the fees are necessary to take care of expenses the state won’t cover, and that campus presidents need the flexibility to impose them even if students disagree. 

“Generally speaking, we’re still underfunded as a university system,” said spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp. “If we’re forced to only go to a student referendum, it would tie the hands of the president to be able to make determinations of what additional revenue would be needed to support students.”

While some categories of mandatory fees are clearly restricted to specific purposes, such as “health facilities” or “student union,” others carry vague titles such as “instructionally related activities” or “student success.” On average, the fees made up about a fifth of CSU students’ total enrollment costs in 2011-12 and have only increased since then, according to the audit. 

Cal State students have launched petition drives and a class-action lawsuit urging campuses to refund fees charged in spring 2020 since the virus-driven lockdown prevents them from using many campus-based services.

Favilla said she doesn’t understand why she’s paying fees for the library and gym when they are closed. “If I’m not getting to use [the facilities] and I’m having to pay for it out of my savings, which are dwindling because it’s hard to find a job right now, all those things stack up, and yeah, it does definitely take a financial toll,” Favilla said. 

So far, the CSU system has resisted calls to reduce mandatory fees. 

“A lot of them are tied to cost drivers that are not going away,” Uhlenkamp said. “We are still employing everyone that works in a student union or in a student center, even though unfortunately students can’t have access to those right now.”

Cal State estimates it has incurred $337 million in additional costs and revenue losses due to the coronavirus. On Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom released a revised state budget for 2020-2021 that proposed a 10 percent cut in spending on Cal State and the University of California, a prospect CSU Chancellor Tim White called “daunting.”

White told CalMatters in April that the university had no plans to raise tuition for the 2020-21 school year, but the board of trustees could take up the issue again at its July meeting. As for whether students will see fee increases, Uhlenkamp said, “It’s impossible to say right now.”

CSU policy requires campus presidents to consult with students before establishing or increasing fees, either by holding a vote or through “alternative consultation,” a process that can include holding public forums or meeting with student leaders.

But even when votes are taken, they’re usually not binding. At Chico State, students voted down three separate fee increases in 2018, the audit found, each time with more than 60 percent of voters weighing in against — but the university raised the fees anyway.

“It felt like they had never intended to give us power in the decision in the first place,” said Chico State senior Natalie Hanson.

Chico State spokesman Sean Murphy said the university went through with the fees because “although the advisory referendum showed that most students who voted did not support raising fees, comments submitted during multiple forums and online were more evenly split.”

In a detailed study of 13 fee proposals undertaken by four campuses — Chico State, San Diego State, Cal Poly and San José State — auditors found that in at least six cases, administrators failed to consult with a university advisory committee set up for that purpose, a violation of CSU policy. Eight of the proposals were submitted to the chancellor’s office without explaining the need for the fees or how they were calculated, the audit found.

For example, San José State’s proposal for a “student success” fee, auditors found, contained no explanation of how the fee was calculated other than that it was “within the range” of what other campuses were charging for “student success.” The chancellor’s office approved the fee.

Auditors recommended that the chancellor’s office start requiring campuses to document their reasons for proposing a fee and how they arrived at the amount, a change that Uhlenkamp said the university was prepared to make. 

But the university opposes another of the auditors’ recommendations: that the legislature bar CSU from using campus fee revenue to fund the core functions of instructing and graduating students. Confining discussions about how to fund a CSU education to the university’s board of trustees and the state legislature — who oversee tuition and state support — would increase fiscal transparency, auditors said. 

The auditors did not suggest how CSU would replace the revenue it gets from student fees at a time when the state budget is tightening and campuses are losing money from shuttering dorms and dining halls. 

One option: California could push the federal government to include funds to provide college education to frontline workers and their families — many of whom would attend a CSU campus — in a new round of coronavirus relief legislation, said Max Lubin, CEO of RISE, a student group that advocates reducing college costs.

“There’s no path to economic recovery in California without a better-educated workforce,” he said.

Morales and Zappelli are contributors to the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists around the state. College Journalism Network fellow Adria Watson contributed reporting. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Felicia Mello covers the state's economic divide. Prior to this role, she was editor for CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher...