By Christopher Smith
Dalton State College freshman Kaitlyn Kittle said she is sick of dodging wayward pingpong balls just to walk through the west hallway of the Pope Student Center.
She said the 30,000-square-foot student center, used mostly as a cafeteria or a “place to hang out,” is “too small” for a student body of approximately 5,000. Therefore, students who want to play pingpong do so in high traffic areas, Kittle said.
College administrators plan to propose a 40,000-square-foot expansion, as well as additional parking, to the state Board of Regents next month to make the college more appealing.
The expansion is expected to cost $13.6 million and be paid for exclusively with a $125 student fee charged each semester for at least 30 years, said Jodi Johnson, vice president of enrollment and student services at the college. The additional funds raised from the fee will pay for interest on construction bonds, which means the final price tag for expansion could be higher than $30 million, Johnson said.
This is the second year college officials have proposed such a fee. Last year, members of the Board of Regents, which approves all public college construction, nixed the project because college officials were also asking for several other fees, DSC President John O. Schwenn said.
Last year college officials raised the athletic fee from $50 to $83 a semester and added a recreation fee of $20 a semester. Those fees were approved to help get new college sports, such as women’s volleyball and men’s basketball, up and running.
The verdict on the new fee could be decided as early as spring 2014, Schwenn said.
If the Board of Regents does approve the plan, it could be several years before groundbreaking, college officials said, with most upperclassmen likely never seeing the center for themselves.
What the new center will look like will be “up to students,” said Johnson. Several ideas include a bigger cafeteria, more meeting rooms and multipurpose space for student activities, she added. The current center only has one meeting space that is usually overbooked by clubs and groups, several students said.
A nearly split student body
Some students say they’re wary of the possible new fee, but Kittle said “it’s actually a great thing for us to go through” because it “expands the college.”
College officials said they gave out a campus-wide poll asking students if they’d be OK with the fee if it meant a better student center. Twenty percent of the student body (approximately 1,000 students) took the poll, officials said, with 51 percent supporting the new fee and 49 percent opposing it.
Members of the Student Advisory Council approved the project before administrators began developing their proposal to send to the Board of Regents for approval next month.
Freshman Lee Daniels said he’s concerned about the fee because he drives 60 miles round-trip from LaFayette each day he has a class. Since most state scholarships and loans don’t typically cover student fees, Daniels said paying it “out of pocket” could hurt his gas budget.
“I can see how expanding the student center might help student life,” Daniels said. “I just don’t really see a need.”
Montana Gray, a junior, said the student center would get more support if it was more “appealing.”
“People go to classes and they go home,” he said. “I used to attend Valdosta State (University) and they had a brand new (student center) and it was absolutely fantastic and it was full of students (even after class).”
Gray, who supports the expansion, said students shouldn’t see the fee as a burden.
“They should see it as an investment for the future,” he said.
The current student center, he said, is “outdated” and a bad first impression to incoming students or visitors from other colleges. If it’s the heart of the campus, it’s a “decaying heart,” he said.
With much of the campus growing around the student center — such as a new science building expected to open next year — it’s only logical to put money towards expansion, Gray said.
Russell Smith, president of the student council, agrees.
“It’s not about what we want to get out of it personally,” he said. “It’s just about what makes the school a better place.”
Fees on top of fees
Sophomore J.D. Green said he likes the idea of a bigger student center, but doesn’t “understand why they would ask students to pay for it.”
“There’s got to be some kind of other way to pay for this,” he said. “College students are literally the worst source of money ever. Most of us don’t have jobs or incomes. We’re living off Hot Pockets for a reason. Getting a job is kind of the reason we’re in college in the first place. And those of us who do have jobs don’t make a lot of money. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.”
The state does not fund non-academic projects so it’s up to student fees to fund the expansion, according to the state Department of Education’s website (www.gadoe.org).
Altogether, student fees now run at $496 a semester, including an institutional fee of $200 mandated by the Board of Regents to help fund college operations.
With tuition added, students who are in-state and who take 15 credit hours pay $1,955 a semester. The college is among the lowest 10 percent of four-year schools in tuition and fees, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“Yeah, Dalton State is cheaper than most places. But this fee, and the ones we had last year, make it less cheap,” Green said. “If you keep adding fees, Dalton State isn’t going to be a cheap education anymore.”
Some students ‘watching every dollar’
Jesus Acosta, who has been attending Dalton State College off-and-on for several years, said that as cheap as tuition at DSC may be compared to the rest of the nation, he’s had to pay everything up front the first day of each semester. Now, he says, he receives some scholarship money that pays for “about half.”
So for someone struggling to pay for school, the possibility of another fee feels like adding “insult to injury,” Acosta said, noting that he supports the expansion project, “just not the timing.”
“I have mixed feelings,” he said. “I want Dalton State to grow, but when you sit down and figure out your budget and you’re going week-to-week to see where you can save, you really start to watch every dollar. If push comes to shove, I’ll figure out how to pay the fee. But there’s a lot of people that this could break them financially.”
To some, paying the fee might not seem like a lot of money, Acosta said, but “around here, economic times have not been very favorable, especially for young people who struggle to find part-time work. We’ve been hit harder than the rest of the nation.”
Green agrees and said he’s worried about a national trend of rising costs to go to school.
“You can’t get a job because you don’t have a college degree,” he said, “but you can’t get a college degree unless you have a job. How’s that supposed to work?”
Smith said he sympathizes with students who don’t want to pay the fee.
“I think it’s a lot of money for anyone,” he said. “At the same time, I would say that, even with a fee increase, Dalton State is still one of the most affordable schools around. And we’re trying to change the thinking around here from Dalton State being a community college to something to invest in that the entire state recognizes and respects. Somewhere people want to go to learn and somewhere they want to stay.”