Madelyn Kumar

A typo-ridden email from Student Financial Services to Yale undergraduates last week shed light on a new process for waiving the student activities fee, a $125 charge that students pay as part of their term bill to support campus activities and organizations.

Revenue from the student activities fee funds student organizations and campus events such as Spring Fling. The funds are managed by the Yale College Dean’s Office with consultation from the Yale College Council, the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee, the Spring Fling Committee and the Yale College Events Committee.

In previous years, any student could waive the fee — which is annually billed to student accounts during the first week of July — and receive a $125 refund to their student account by checking a box on the Student Information System. But according to a new policy, students wishing to waive the fee must write an email to Student Affairs explaining how the policy poses a financial burden to them.

The new waiver policy came to light after a July 1 email from Student Financial Services, which included scattered series of question marks and other formatting errors, explained the old process for waiving the fee and pointed students toward SIS to waive it. The next day, University Bursar Sara Battista issued a correction email that told students to disregard the original email, which had been sent out in error and included outdated information. The new email hyperlinked to a page on Yale’s Student Accounts website, which outlined the new waiver process.

“An automated message to students contained outdated information about the student activities fee, and I understand that the Office of Financial Services and the Office of Student Affairs are working on clarifying the process of waiving it,” Yale College Dean Marvin Chun wrote in an email to the News.

For students receiving any level of financial aid from the University, the fee is automatically covered in full as part of the Yale Scholarship, said Paul McKinley, director of strategic communication for Yale College. If a student on financial aid chooses to waive the fee, $125 is also deducted from the student’s scholarship — resulting in no change to the actual balance of the student’s term bill. Still, students who are not on aid can receive a deduction from their bill balances if financial constraints make the fee a hardship, McKinley said.

Although most of Yale’s peers make their activities fees mandatory, the dean’s office wanted to be sensitive to students’ need for flexibility, eliminate the financial impact for students who receive financial aid, and avoid increasing the fee,” McKinley wrote in an email to the News. “The office of student affairs also wanted to provide and receive more info about it. Despite the glitches in rolling it out, the new procedure aims to accomplish all those goals.”

The July 1 email gave several examples of programs that it said benefit from the funds raised by the fee, such as Spring Fling, the “YCC Bass DVD library” and “the new YCC bike share program.” The message prompted a quick response from the YCC on its Facebook page that same day, which stated that council leadership had not been consulted about the email’s contents and that several of the programs mentioned in the email are not funded by the fee or no longer exist, such as the DVD library.

“I thought it was a prank email when I first saw it,” YCC President Kahlil Greene ’21 told the News. “It was very concerning to me that … the first entire student body email with YCC in it [during my tenure] was an unintentional email sent out to the student body. Moving forward, I hope that, in the future, they contact me before mentioning the YCC.”

The series of events created confusion about the fee and the waiver process, sparking questions and criticism from Yalies across social media as some students on financial aid began drafting waiver requests to student affairs, not realizing that a waiver would not result in a deduction from their term bill.

Jordan Young ’21 said he found Yale’s communications about the issue “unclear.” He added that many low-income students “can barely afford their books at the beginning of the year” and are typically unable to attend YCC events funded by the fee due to “their strenuous work and activity hours.”

YCC leadership for both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years — including Greene, former YCC president Saloni Rao ’20, current events director Steven Orientale ’21 and former events director Caleigh Propes ’20 — said they were not involved in crafting the new policy.

Still, McKinley said that the changes were the product of at least four years of discussions with previous YCC leadership about how to “strengthen support for activities for all students.” He added that the Office of Student Affairs would like to hear from student leadership about student response to the changes this year. Chun said that the Office of Financial Services, the Office of Student Affairs and Yale College Council review all fees and policies annually.

On the YCC Spring Survey, 98 percent of about 1,000 undergraduate respondents reported benefitting from student organizations at some point during their Yale career, and 91 percent reported having attended Spring Fling at least once. Forty percent said they had never paid the $125 activities fee, while 34 percent said they paid it every year. When asked for their opinion on whether the fee should be mandatory but eligible for financial aid, 30 percent of respondents said they would oppose or strongly oppose the idea, 20 percent were neutral and 36 percent said they would support or strongly support it. Fourteen percent were unsure.

In May, Will Sussman ’21, the author of the spring survey questions on the fee and founder and co-chair of Yale Student Branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, met with Chun to propose lowering the fee and making it mandatory but eligible for financial aid. Sussman told the News that he believes the original policy “created a serious free-rider problem,” in that many of the students that opt out of the fee still continue to enjoy its perks — leading to a limited pool of funding for student organizations such as his own.

“Ideally tuition dollars could be used instead of an additional fee, but the new policy seems to be a step in the right direction,” Sussman said. “The impetus for securing questions about the Student Activities Fee in the YCC Survey was underfunding of student organizations. Free-riders leave clubs strapped for cash, so I hope the new policy alleviates the lack of sufficient funds.”

Orientale, the YCC events director, said he is not aware of how exactly this potential increase in funding for student activities will impact the funding of the YCC Events programming and committees. But he added that he will know more once the beginning of the academic year approaches. He suspects that there will be a larger funding pool that will allow the Events Committee to bring “a greater number and variety of events and programming to an even larger portion of the student body.”

Of the $349,000 in the YCC’s annual budget, $274,157 — about 79 percent — goes toward Spring Fling.

Asha Prihar | .

Asha Prihar served as managing editor of the News during the 2019-20 academic year. Before that, she covered community service, Yale's professional schools and undergraduate student life as a staff reporter. She is a senior in Silliman College studying political science.