USF says pandemic problems caused $8.6M glitch over ‘distance learning’ fees

The university also announced a hike in housing fees, citing rising costs.
A USF audit found $8.6 million in excess fees collected for distance learning courses over the last three fiscal years.
A USF audit found $8.6 million in excess fees collected for distance learning courses over the last three fiscal years. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 15|Updated Feb. 15

The University of South Florida collected $8.6 million more in fees than state law allowed from students who signed up for remote classes, a recent audit found.

The money came from fees on “distance learning” courses that are added to regular tuition and are supposed to cover the extra cost of developing and delivering them. But the revenue from those fees exceeded the university’s costs by $8.56 million, according to an audit report that was brought before the USF board of trustees’ audit and compliance committee on Tuesday.

The lapse was the only negative finding from 15 audits conducted on USF accounts for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022.

Responding to the audit, the university said it would follow the auditors’ recommendations to more closely monitor its procedures regarding distance learning fees.

According to USF’s online fee schedule, the current fee on distance learning courses is $30 per credit hour.

In a statement late Wednesday, the university said students were not overcharged.

It said that, due to the pandemic when students were attending classes online, USF collected more in distance learning fees than in prior years. Those fees have yet to be reinvested in the online program because of “supply chain and staffing issues caused by COVID-19,” the statement said.

The situation caused the backlog of funds noted by the auditor, the statement indicated.

It said the university will use the collected fees over the next three years for distance learning initiatives.

During the summer of 2020, some students protested in an email campaign, saying it was unfair that they had to pay the fee when online learning was the only option they had to take a course due to the pandemic. Soon after, the university lowered the distance learning fee and other fees, according to The Oracle, the USF student newspaper in Tampa.

In another matter involving student costs, the trustees’ finance committee on Tuesday voted in favor of a proposal to increase the price of on-campus housing by about 4.5% each year for five years. The hike would be imposed on the Tampa campus starting this fall, on the St. Petersburg campus in 2024 and on the Sarasota-Manatee campus in 2025.

Assistant vice president for housing Ana Hernandez said off-campus housing costs have increased between 10% and 58% since 2019, while USF housing fees have remained flat.

According to her presentation to the trustees, USF Housing currently offers on average a nine-month lease of $8,900 for Tampa students and a $9,342 lease for those on the St. Petersburg campus. It said the average market rental cost on a 12-month lease is $9,550 in Tampa and $15,076 in St. Petersburg.

Demand for on-campus housing has exceeded the numbers of beds available, she said.

Hernandez cited rising costs for supplies and labor as reasons for the increases. Florida Prepaid’s dorm plan would still cover the full costs of the increase, she said.

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Her presentation also included other Florida schools for reference. It said that only Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic University will not be increasing their rates for fall 2023, and that the University of Central Florida is still reviewing its plans. At most of the remaining state universities with residence facilities, the presentation said, officials have already approved or proposed increases.

The finance committee voted in favor of the USF proposal, which must still be approved by the full board of trustees.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that USF overcharged students for distance learning fees. The university issued a statement disputing that characterization.)