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Undergraduate Student Activities Fee To Increase by Over 150 Percent

University Hall, Fall 2017
The Office of Student Life is located in University Hall.

The College will increase the student activities fee—an optional sum Harvard undergraduates pay as part of their enrollment costs—from $75 to $200 next academic year, Alexander R. Miller, associate dean for student engagement, said in an interview Monday.

The $125—or more than 150 percent—increase marks the first change to the fee in over a decade.

The Office of Student Life also plans to restructure the way it funds the Undergraduate Council, the College Events Board, House Committees, and the Intramural Sports Council starting fall 2018, Miller said.

Before, the UC took charge of all money gathered via the activities fee and distributed it to campus student groups at the discretion of its finance committee. Now, though, the OSL plans to form a new committee—comprising both students and administrators—that will help allocate funds gathered through the activities fee.

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The committee will in part distribute funds according to student groups’ ability to engage with undergraduates, according to Miller.

Miller said these changes are meant to make the funding system for student organizations more “sustainable” going forward. The activities fee increase and the funding system restructuring come at a time of widespread turnover and transition at Harvard.

After 11 years at the helm, University President Drew G. Faust will step down in June 2018. President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow will take office in July.

Money gathered via the activities fee only constitutes a segment of funding used to support undergraduate social programming. In recent years, the College has also relied on donations as well as a portion of the University president’s discretionary fund. Faust has provided part of her discretionary fund to the College, which has used the money to cover the cost of undergraduate social events, since at least 2015.

By default, undergraduates pay the student activities fee, but they can avoid the charge by mailing a letter to the College before Sept. 30 each year detailing their reasons for opting out. All requests are honored, according to the Harvard College Student Handbook.

Over the past three years, roughly 1 percent of undergraduates have chosen to opt out of the fee, according to College spokesperson Rachael Dane. All students are eligible to opt out regardless of their financial aid status, Dane said.

Miller acknowledged some students will choose to avoid the fee after the 150 percent increase and said he and other administrators have sought to calculate the impact of the hike. Ultimately, though, Miller said the OSL believes the overall amount of money gathered via the student activities fee will increase in the 2018-2019 school year.

Currently, the fee brings in roughly $500,000,according to Miller.

“This will allow students to take advantage of a greater pool of funds,” Miller said of the changes.

The new “funding board” charged with allocating money gathered via the activities fee will comprise College administrators, as well as undergraduate representatives from the UC, CEB, House Committees, and the IM Council, Miller said.

He added that the College is still developing the framework for this new committee. In particular, administrators and students are working to determine how many board representatives each group will receive—as well as the criteria the board will use to distribute funding.

“Each year, each organization would go before this board, and this board would be looking at their overall year, so assessing their year,” Miller said. “It’s one thing to come to the board and ask for funding, but I think the board will also be asking, ‘So with the current funding you’re using, how are you assessing it, how are you engaging with students?’”

Miller announced the changes to student life funding directly to members of the UC, CEB, House Committees, and the IM Council in meetings with all four bodies over the past two weeks.

The Undergraduate Council has long pushed for an increase to the student activities fee, which has held steady at $75 since 2006. In 2012, for example, then-UC President Daniel P. Bicknell ’13 and UC Vice President Pratyusha Yalamanchi ’13 recommended that the College increase the fee to between $115 and $160 in a commissioned report. At the time, they argued that some of Harvard’s peer institutions had much higher activities fees.

This semester, with the Council’s finance committee once again facing a budget shortfall, some UC leaders say the activities fee increase is welcome news. Boucher said in an interview Monday that he is supportive of the fee hike and is optimistic the Council will benefit from the change.

“I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to increase the amount of funding that goes to the UC through the funding board that will be created,” UC Vice President Nicholas D. Boucher '19 said. “In our informal conversations with the administration, the idea has been that the pool of money will be large enough that it’s at the very least feasible for the UC to request more money than it currently has.”

The increase in the activities fee brings the College in line with some of its peer institutions. The average activities fee across five Ivy League schools who disclose that information online—Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Yale, and Columbia—is $205 per year.

In another change, student group funding will now be tied to the University’s fiscal calendar—which runs from July 1 to June 30—as opposed to the academic calendar, according to Miller. He noted this revision will most directly affect student groups whose budgeting or election cycles do not line up with the University’s fiscal year.

“They could potentially be applying for a year that they may not be fully serving in,” Miller said. “So that may require some level of wisdom or oversight from student organizations, but I do think it will challenge groups to think about their overall leadership structures, how that transition plays out with its budget cycle and what that might mean for the overall governance of the group.”

Currier House Committee co-chair Danielle E. Katz ’19 said she supports the fee increase. She sought to put the $125 hike in perspective.

“I think it’s a relatively small amount,” Katz said. “I mean, it’s not even 1 percent of what we pay every year to go here… so I don’t think it should be that big of a concern.”

Harvard announced last week that undergraduate enrollment costs will increase by 3 percent for the 2018-2019 academic year.

—Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at jonah.berger@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.

—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at caroline.engelmayer@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.

—Staff writer Michael E. Xie can be reached at michael.xie@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter@MichaelEXie1.

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