When school spirit isn’t enough: Activities fees increasing for students


When it comes to after school activity fees for sports and other extra-curricular clubs like debate or band, there is no across the board policy either in Minneapolis or St. Paul about how to make activities accessible for all students.  Schools strapped for cash due to funding cuts rely heavily on participation fees to pay for coaches, uniforms, materials, and buses, but the economy has also driven up the numbers of students who simply can’t afford rising costs for these activities.

In Minneapolis, high school students pay $60 to participate in sports, but for football that cost is raised to $70, and for hockey it’s $90.  How the schools handle making sports accessible for every student varies from school to school.  

Jamison Rusthoven, the Athletic Director at Edison High School in Minneapolis, said that at his school, participation fees count for 1/3 of the sports budget, but last year more than 200 of the total 458 kids playing sports were on free or reduced lunch.  While not all students who are on free or reduced lunch get their participation fee waived, Edison does offer scholarships to some students on an individual basis.

“We try to encourage some type of accountability,” Rusthoven said, saying some alternatives are a year-long payment plan or work-study positions.

Similarly, Mark Sanders, the athletic director at Minneapolis South High School, said that he doesn’t automatically give scholarships to students on free or reduced lunch. 

“If there’s a need,” Sanders said, “We discuss it.  I don’t turn anybody away.  If they can’t afford it, we’ll pick it up.”  Sanders said that usually there were around 50 students that needed some sort of aid, although in some years it was close to one hundred.  Like Rusthoven, Sanders offers opportunities for work-study for some students, such as pouring coffee at the pancake breakfast fundraiser.  South also has a fund for seven female athletic scholarships, and gets some money from the state high school league. 

John Vosejpka, Athletic Facilitator for St. Paul Public Schools, said that all schools in St. Paul charge $45 dollars to participate in sports, which breaks down to a $25 participation fee and a $20 equipment fee.  Some sports cost more. Hockey, for example, costs $70 dollars per season.  In addition, for most sports students pay for their own shoes and personal apparel, such as shin guards for soccer, or cleats.  For students on free or reduced lunch, their participation fee is waived, but they still have to pay the equipment fee.   

Non-sports fees can be pricey, too.  At Minneapolis South High School, participating in the theatre program now costs $75 per year, or $40 per semester ($25 to participate in the student written and directed one-acts).  South’s band and choir take place in school, so there is no fee, but if students want to go on the yearly trip to a national festival, they have to come up with up to $250 dollars for travel expenses.  Laurie Meyers, who heads up the South High Vocal Music program, said that they do fundraising efforts to help pay for those costs. 

Some schools don’t charge fees for activities.  North High School runs their drama, chess, ping pong and sewing clubs through the 21st Century Community Education Learning Center (21st CCELC),  which provides programming for students at no charge.  Kimberly Jones, who works in the 21st CCELC office, said that “the programming is geared toward what the students want.”

Another organization, The Minnesota Urban Debate League (MUDL), which is affiliated with the National Urban Debate League and is run through Augsburg College, was started in 2003, and covers costs of coach’s salaries and entry fees to tournaments, among other expenses.  The MUDL works with Henry, North, and Washburn in Minneapolis and Como and Central High Schools in Saint Paul.  They also partially fund the Minneapolis South debate team and the Highland Park debate team. 

Amy Cram Helwich, the director for MUDL, said the organization is “part of a national movement across the country to bring debate into the classrooms.”  Studies have shown, she said, that participation in debate is a “pathway for leadership success,” but for many students, it’s cost prohibitive. The MUDL is one way to “level the playing field”. 

Even MUDL, though, doesn’t cover all of the costs for participating in debate. Many schools have a booster club to raise funds for traveling and other expenses.  Maggie Johnson, who was treasurer of Central High School’s debate booster club last year, said the booster club sends letters to parents, friends and family members of the team to raise funds.   Still, she said, even that doesn’t cover all the costs.  Many debate tournaments occur out of state, and Johnson said she has paid for numerous airplane tickets, hotel stays, and extra food costs for her daughter.  She said that while traveling long distance to tournaments is not a requirement to participate in the team, students who reach a certain level often go to other states for tournaments.  In addition, parents help carpool. 

Andrea Berlin, whose son debated at Highland High School, said that she had to pay for her son Nat’s hotel stays, airplane tickets, and extra food costs for out of state tournaments.  The investment, however, paid off, as Nate won a debate scholarship to the University of Iowa.  Berlin’s daughter, Bekkah, participates in the speech team.  While Bekkah has only participated in local and state-level tournaments thus far, Berlin wrote in an email that, “Each year, team members pay something like $150 initially, which helps defray group transportation costs.”

For suburban schools, costs are just as high.  Take Robbinsdale Cooper High School, for example.  Students pay $100 per season to participate in fine arts activities.  Students who receive reduced-price lunch have to pay $50, and those with free lunch pay $25.  For sports, students pay fees such as $93 to play tennis, or $108 to play baseball, with a $450 family maximum.

 Other suburban schools have seen their fees jump just in the last year as a result of budget cuts.  According to a KSTP report, the Eastern Carver County School District, which includes Carver, Chanhassen, Chaska and Victoria, increased many of their fees by $100.  Choir and band participants saw their fees jump from $55 last year to $200 this year, according to the report. 

What does this mean for students?  Studies have shown that extra-curricular activities help improve academic achievement for students and prevent kids from dropping out of school.  For students who can’t afford the activity fees, or don’t go to a school where scholarships are readily available, or don’t know who to ask about those opportunities, it could mean they miss that extra boost that would help them succeed.