Every semester when tuition bills get released, how closely do you pay attention?
For students that have looked at their bill breakdown, the segregated fees expense at the University of Wisconsin may be a familiar one. This school year, students were charged $734.30 in segregated fees, which go to programs like UHS, Recreation & Wellbeing and the Associated Students of Madison.
A portion of that fee goes to the General Student Services Fund — this year it cost students $8.20. While this may seem like a small portion of tuition, it can have a big impact on the experience of many students at UW.
As one of the only tuition fees that is decided and allocated by elected and appointed student officers, GSSF money serves the unique role of providing funding to eligible registered student organizations on campus.
While the GSSF only costs each undergraduate and graduate student a little over eight dollars, it adds up quickly with roughly 40,000 students paying this fee on their tuition bills every semester. For this school year, the GSSF provided funding for 16 groups who applied and were approved by the Student Services Finance Committee for budgets ranging from around $30,000 to nearly $200,000.
Balancing the Budget
While the GSSF fee costs students eight dollars this year, that’s not always the case. According to current SSFC Chair Tessa Reilly, the total for this fee is set by SSFC after all budget requests for the following year have been approved, amended or denied. So, the $8.20 that students were charged at the beginning of this semester was decided by SSFC during the spring 2020 semester after all organizations’ budgets were solidified.
At the end of this school year, SSFC will set next year’s GSSF segregated fee amount, based on the budgets the group approved for student organizations to spend next year.
Budget hearings and decisions are already underway for organizations, and Reilly said most will finish before December. During the spring semester, SSFC makes recommendations for other programs funded through student segregated fees, like Recreation & Wellbeing and University Health Services. Reilly said SSFC does not have the power to set budgets for these groups, but the committee can advise these departments on how they believe their funding should be spent to benefit students while keeping segregated fees low.
Despite the economic constraints the university is facing this year, Reilly said the committee encouraged GSSF groups to plan their budgets as normal.
“We’ve told all the groups this year to plan [next year’s budgets] as if COVID is not happening … and we’ll kind of make amendments based on their returns,” Reilly said. “We’re encouraging them for their current budgets to make as many alterations as possible … to enhance their online programming so student services and student life can still be enhanced by the GSSF.”
While some groups have had little to no amendments so far this year to their budget proposals, Reilly said a few have had more extensive amendments made, like the Wisconsin Association of Black Men, which received a 25% cut from their requested budget, and the Campus Women’s Center, whose budget was cut by 10%.
SSFC also amended the budgets of F.H. King by 7%, Wunk Sheek by 5% and Mecha by 4%, with other groups like PAVE and The Black Voice receiving minimal changes with a decrease of only 2% in their budgets.
When evaluating budgets, SSFC Vice Chair Grace D’Souza said SSFC looks at past budget usage and returns to find areas groups weren’t effective at spending their funds. Budget historicals, along with budget presentations — where the group gets to explain how the previous year went from their perspective — help SSFC to make budget decisions, D’Souza said.
“I’m able to sort of paint a picture of … was it effective, was it not, where are areas we can slim down and still make sure the group is able to function and put on programming and leave them room to grow while also being fiscally conservative with student fees,” D’Souza said.
D’Souza said it is important to hear from the organizations about why budget problems occurred the previous year and what their plans are to fix them. Because organizations make budget requests for the following fiscal year during the current fiscal year, the leadership team that presents is not the leadership team that will use the funds requested, D’Souza said.
While presenting budgets, D’Souza said groups can explain why issues arose in the past that kept them from using their budget effectively, like leadership transition issues, but it may be difficult for the groups to fully ensure that next year’s team will not run into the same problems. SSFC can take the changes a group makes to their organization and procedures into consideration, but it does not always change the committee’s position on what they believe is an appropriate amount of funding for the group based on historical spending.
SSFC Rep. and former SSFC Chair Jordan Pasbrig said some organizations repeat the same issues from year to year as a result of structural issues in the group’s leadership.
“At the end of the day, it really does come down to trying to set that student fee just a little bit lower for next year to try and save students money and making sure we’re responsibly charging students,” Pasbrig said.
Equitable budgets and neutral viewpoints
BIPOC Coalition member Juliana Bennett said it was “upsetting” to see the large budget cuts to WABM. The group felt they were being punished because they had one bad year, Bennett said.
Bennett said the concept of fiscal conservatism can hurt students from marginalized communities who find a sense of community within many of the groups that the GSSF funds, yet also view their social lives and fiscal lives as connected.
Bennett said a goal of the BIPOC Coalition is to establish stable and consistent funding on campus for other BIPOC student groups that often do not have the privilege of having large donors or generational wealth to support the organization’s programming.
“Especially during times of racial unrest, it is that much more important for us to be getting even more funding to organizations that provide a safe community for students of color,” Bennett said.
Reilly said viewpoint neutrality forms the basis for all of the decisions SSFC makes. SSFC can only evaluate the student organizations by their budgets and how well they use them to carry out programming that meets SSFC criteria. They cannot take into consideration how many students an organization serves or the impact of the programming, Reilly said.
D’Souza said favoring groups that align themselves with the BIPOC Coalition and awarding them budget increases would go against viewpoint neutrality.
“It’s difficult to navigate,” D’Souza said. “We want to go to these groups and help them succeed, but we can’t favor one over the other just because their mission is especially pertinent right now.”
Reilly said that in addition to it not being fair to other groups, it would also be illegal.
In 1996, three UW students challenged the UW system for allowing SSFC to grant funds to groups that advocated for political ideologies the students disagreed with on the grounds that using their tuition money to fund them went against their First Amendment rights.
The case went to the Supreme Court in 2000, and the justices ruled that the university could continue to collect segregated fees as long as the groups receiving this funding had viewpoint-neutral programming and SSFC did not support some groups’ viewpoints over others.
In the following years, the case was handed back down to lower courts and UW’s system of segregated fees was challenged again for failing to ensure decisions were viewpoint-neutral. District courts eventually ruled the UW System could continue charging students segregated fees to fund student organizations because UW used a viewpoint-neutral system that did not directly infringe on First Amendment rights.
Bennett said it’s important students stay aware of the decisions SSFC and ASM make because it’s their tuition money these student organizations receive.
“It’s their duty as representatives [to uphold student values], and if that’s not happening, students need to be reaching out to make sure our values are being met and that they know what our values are,” Bennett said.
For cases where an organization feels SSFC did not evaluate them fairly or the committee made a procedural error during the decision process, the group can appeal that decision, Pasbrig said.
Taking the committee to court
Reilly said groups can sue SSFC through the ASM Student Judiciary and have their case tried in a court of law.
“The term is ‘suing’, but the only thing that would happen is that they would just have a new budget hearing and we would evaluate [their budget] again,” Reilly said.
The Student Veterans Association sued SSFC through this process last year after the committee completely cut their funding, Reilly said.
SVA Financial Coordinator Levi Redlin said in meetings leading up to their budget hearing, Reilly, who was then SSFC vice chair, did not give any indication that the committee planned on zero-funding the group, so when the announcement came, it took the organization by surprise.
“We expected we were going to need to make some changes — we were going to need to account for where we weren’t spending money and where we were returning funds,” Redlin said. “But we didn’t expect more than a cut in our budget.”
Redlin said SSFC zero-funded them in part because the committee felt the ratio between what they were spending on student salaries and what they were spending on programming was not in line with what SSFC felt was appropriate.
The lack of funding from SSFC meant the group had to restructure how they were going to carry out programming for the year, and they even had to drop some events altogether, Redlin said. But, the group secured a grant through the ASM Grant Allocation Committee to cover some of the organization’s costs for the semester, Redlin said.
“A lot of the reason we ask for funding is that as student veterans primarily, we tend to be older and there tends to be a lot of us that have obligations outside of school,” Redlin said. “It can be hard for us to find people to fill leadership positions and to help us with events.”
Redlin said the organization found SSFC’s lack of transparency leading up to the decision frustrating. Redlin said the decision to zero-fund them came after Reilly met with SSFC’s Assistant Director for Financial Services Rich Sterkowitz, who is not a student, but a staff member of the university.
D’Souza said SSFC encourages groups to reach out and meet with her or Sterkowitz prior to budget meetings to provide feedback and transparency and to create an open line of communication.
Redlin said SVA feels SSFC’s makeup does not represent the diversity of students present on campus. Historically, turnout for ASM and SSFC elections has been low, Redlin said, and additionally, the committee fills many positions through nominations rather than elections.
“The people who end up on SSFC tend to be people who are interested in finance rather than people who represent the student body as a whole,” Redlin said. “Specifically, from our organization’s point of view, I don’t like that there has been any representation on the SSFC from non-traditional older students, like student veterans, which has kind of given us this disconnect when we’re trying to explain where we’re coming from.”
Pasbrig said while ASM fills some positions on the council through nominations, the nominations board tries to look at what perspectives and backgrounds the committee already represent and nominate people who differ.
Reilly said this year, ASM members represent students from more majors than just finance or economics, and committee members include graduate students as well, like Pasbrig and herself.
“Three years ago, you could have asked SSFC this question and it would have been 90% finance majors,” Pasbrig said. “I think it’s really just been trending in a different direction now as we’ve seen the campus narrative shift and the importance that everyone’s voice has in the budget-making process.”
Overall, Reilly said the main goal of SSFC is to make sure the GSSF enhances student services and experiences on campus while still maintaining a viewpoint-neutral stance.
D’Souza said SSFC has made it a goal to increase awareness of their budget-making process and create open communication with students on campus.
“We are working on making sure students are aware that one — they pay seg fees, two — there’s a student body that is elected and nominated that can manage those fees and three — there’s ways for you to get involved and get engaged with this committee and that you can be directly involved in the decision making process,” D’Souza said.