Audit reveals distance learning fee revenue spent outside of statute

Screen shot 2013-11-23 at 3.08.46 PMMadison Fantozzi/News Director
madison.fantozzi@fiusm.com

This story published in FIU’s The Beacon on Monday, November 25, 2013. You can also read online: fiusm.com

Students are petitioning for its elimination and President Mark B. Rosenberg is unsure of how it can be reduced, but the Office of Internal Audit may have found a way to lower FIU Online’s distance learning fee.

Auditors reported in the first audit of FIU Online in April that “significant” and “considerable” amounts of distance learning fee expenditures in fiscal year 2011-2012 violated state statute, concluding that the distance learning fee could be reduced with compliance to policy.

This proved true. The distance learning fee decreased nearly 13 percent from the $199 charge in 2011 to $160 this semester for a three-credit course after the department agreed to comply and put in place better controls over its spending.

However, Dean of University College Joyce Elam said the audit’s criticisms were matters of “grey areas.”

According to Florida statute, “the amount of the distance learning course fee may not exceed additional costs of the services provided which are attributable to the development and delivery of the distance learning course.”

What cannot be charged, determined by Florida Distance Learning Task Force: instruction costs, costs covered by other fees and costs associated with the development and delivery of eligible distance learning courses.

“The spending wasn’t inappropriate, it was a matter of narrow interpretation,” Elam said. “It’s what tuition should pay for instead of the distance learning fee, like advisers.”

However, auditors marked FIU Online’s policy and procedures compliance as inadequate.

Over $1.6 million paid to College of Arts and Sciences employees, over $336,000 paid to College of Business Administration and over $100,000 paid to School of Journalism and Mass Communication administrative and support staff for salaries and fringe benefits without any justification for paying these expenditures from the distance learning fee.

The audit also disclosed that 96 percent of distance learning fee dollars tested within the College of Arts and Sciences had little or no direct benefit to its online programs, and 67 percent of dollars tested within FIU Online had no direct benefit to distance learning or other online programs.

The auditors’ conclusion: opportunities to reduce the distance learning fee exists if FIU Online spends its revenue in compliance with statute and policy.

FIU Online establishes its distance learning fee annually based on projected enrollment and budgeted costs of developing and delivering its courses. The department responded to the audit with new controls to ensure spending proportionate to program costs.

“We will ensure the distance learning fee is only spent on things authorized by statute,” Elam said. “But in today’s world with budget cuts, it’s difficult to identify where funds will come from and we need the fee in order to offer students the convenience of online courses.”

But some students want to see the fee eliminated – over 200 have signed a petition on change.org.Screen shot 2013-11-23 at 3.10.36 PM

Laura Perez-Arias, a junior hospitality major who has signed the petition, said the fee is not-so-convenient.

“This ridiculous fee is as much as the travel fee if I were to take the bus to Biscayne Bay Campus two days a week,” she said, calculating that at $5 a day, two days a week for 16 weeks she would pay $160 in travel expenses.

Elam said no fee would mean no online courses, however. Still, the University’s distance learning fee remains one of the highest in the state.

“As the number of students enrolled in online class grow, the economy will help scale the fee,” she said.

Rosenberg shared the same outlook in an interview with Student Media in early October.

“I do see a flattening of the fee structure, but I can’t predict how and I don’t see any in the short term,” Rosenberg said.

While Elam says eliminating the fee is not an option, she can promise students one thing.

“I’m 100 percent certain the distance fee will not increase,” Elam said.

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