Special report: Don't forget student fees; here's why they're rising even faster than tuition at Louisiana universities _lowres

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- The leisure pool, also known as a lazy river, at the Student Aquatics Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The pool, like many campus amenities, was financed with student fees.

Shortly before Christmas last year, LSU got the kind of national publicity no institution wants. In a Dec. 15 Wall Street Journal commentary, writer Naomi Schafer Riley highlighted the university’s new Lazy River as “no better example of American higher education’s wasteful indulgence.”

The oped by Riley, a frequent conservative commentator on higher education, didn’t seem to make much of a ripple locally, no doubt because residents were focused on the holidays. But Riley’s critique is worth revisiting amid renewed concerns about the cost of attending LSU and other public universities in Louisiana.

TOPS, the popular program that pays tuition for in-state students who meet nominal academic requirements, is on the chopping block again, leaving many students in limbo as the governor and lawmakers sort out a billion-dollar state budget shortfall. But even at its best, TOPS didn’t cover the fees that are separate from each student’s tuition bill. Across the country, between 1999 and 2013, “inflation-adjusted fees grew faster than tuition — 95 percent at four-year public colleges,” noted Riley, citing research in the Review of Higher Education.

Here in Louisiana and elsewhere, many of the increases came from university administrators raising fees because tuition caps prevented them from generating money elsewhere. But as Riley points out, some of the fees have been self-imposed by students to fund marquee campus attractions that have little to do with a university’s core mission.

Riley used LSU’s recently opened Lazy River as a poster child for the trend. At the huge pool, students ride inflatable tubes on a water current shaped like the school’s initials. The ride was part of an $85 million upgrade to recreation facilities paid for by a $135 student fee increase over three years — an expense approved by students.

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Video via Matt Houston / LSU Manship School News Service

As a practical matter, though, such fees are often paid by parents or student loans, Riley wrote. “There are a lot of higher education costs students can’t control, but this is one they can,” she told readers.

Supporters of campus amenities like the Lazy River argue that they’re necessary to compete with other universities that are offering similar attractions to students.

But as we pointed out last year, there’s more than a little irony in LSU opening a water ride at the same time that the Middleton Library, its primary reference center, is essentially falling apart.

The Lazy River was paid for by student fees, not the taxpayer-funded capital outlay budget that would finance efforts to repair or replace Middleton.

LSU 'lazy river' the ultimate higher-ed wasteful indulgence, WSJ commentary says

But with the cost of college increasing all the time, students at LSU and other state universities — and parents who often foot the bill — would do well to think about what student fees are paying for.