NYS Exposed: 'Donation' tacked onto college tuition bills

March 13, 2017 11:22 PM

ROCHESTER—If you went to college, you might be a philanthropist without evening realizing it. There’s a buried line item on many tuition bills here in New York State that may have had you unknowingly making a donation to your college or university for years.

Kristina Murty is working two jobs while she commutes to classes at SUNY Brockport. She pays close attention to her bills especially her tuition bill. "I got an email with my bill and it was just a total amount... this much, pay by then,” she tells News10NBC.

But that wasn’t good enough, she wanted a breakdown so she clicked through the link for a full copy of her bill. It was a line item that charged $25.00 and read “A Gift to Brockport (Optional)” that got her attention.  "It said gift donation, optional, but it was along with everything else that's on the bill... Athletic fee, technology fee, student life fee, whatever... fee, fee, fee, fee, fee,” she recalls.

Turns out the $25 per-semester “gift” is automatically tacked on to all undergraduate bills unless a student opts-out. "We're trying to get students and parents to understand that support is needed,” says Mike Andriatch, the vice president of advancement at the College at Brockport.

SUNY Brockport isn’t the only school that adds the “gift” on to bills. Almost every school in the SUNY system and many private colleges and universities also collect the donation. 'The money is spent on scholarship dollars, undergraduate research dollars, study abroad, any international pieces that go with that, technology for students and then a lot of student alumni programming,” Andriatch says.

Murty has no problem with what the money is used for, she just thinks the school should ask you to opt-in, not out. "It feels deceitful, it feels underhanded,” she says.

Jennifer Lewke (News10NBC): "Do you find a lot of students say, 'hey listen -- I'm already paying tuition, why do I want to donate before I even graduate?”
Mike Andriatch: "It does, it happens and it's really more the parents than the students because I don't know how many students really look at their tuition bill."
Jennifer Lewke: "You want people to want to donate but does this method really give them that opportunity? If they're not really looking at the bill, they don't really even know they're donating?"
Mike Andriatch: "Well, that may be true early on but we do talk about this with different audiences when we can and we're hoping it becomes part of the culture. We do have people that opt-out but not as many as you would think."

Murty thinks that’s probably because most students don’t even realize they’re paying it before they graduate, "If it's in a lot of schools in the SUNY system, it's millions of dollars being collected,” she says.

At Brockport, the opt-out process is fairly simply and can be done online. Andriatch says the student only needs to opt-out once during their time at the school and it will remain in effect until they graduate. At other schools, the opt-out process is more complicated or you can’t do it at all. This line item is legal and in the SUNY system, has been allowed for many years but most schools don’t tell students about it up-front, only answering questions or offering an opt-out after someone inquires.

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Jennifer Lewke

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