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Penn professors, administrators, and students alike struggle with the issue of hidden course fees and the tremendous cost of textbooks for each class.

Credit: Sam Holland , Sam Holland

Julia MacKenzie, a College senior who is studying architecture, said it can cost hundreds of dollars to 3D print just one project for a class.

Architecture students are given $50 a semester to print, but that usually only covers students for the first few weeks of class, MacKenzie said. While some courses like science labs clearly display their associated fees on Penn InTouch — which can be from $75 to $300 for lab equipment — other courses costs, like MaKenzie’s architecture classes are not as predictable.

High costs for materials and projects are often not listed on syllabi, but these hidden course fees pose a problem for students who cannot afford them.

“Even if it’s not a super active decision, I find that at least for me, subconsciously, I’ll alter my designs so that it’ll be easier to make with cheaper material,” Sybil Lui, another senior studying architecture, said.


Since last fall, Penn First, the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education and the Undergraduate Assembly have been actively working with the Council of Undergraduate Deans to bring attention to the issue of prohibitive course costs. These course costs can include additional fees for materials that are not listed in syllabi or even transportation costs for fieldwork or jobs that are required for the class.

College senior Juana Granados received two course credits—and a pay cut—when she took on an internship that was part of a required Urban Studies class for her major last year.

Since her freshman year, Granados had been devoting 15 to 20 hours each week to her work-study job as the Riepe College House manager. When she began her mandatory internship with a real estate developer, she was forced to scale back to just five hours. The little income she earned that semester went to the Uber drivers that drove her to and from the internship, since the site was difficult to access via SEPTA.

Each trip was about seven dollars, and Granados reported to work three days a week.

“Walking was a great option at one point, even in the cold,” she said.

SCUE, which is working to reduce these hidden course costs that students like Granados face, administered a survey last semester about additional class fees.

The survey results, which were reported only to the administration, revealed that the fees associated with science lab courses were most widely known. College senior and former Chair External of SCUE Jane Xiao said that fine arts and nursing courses were also cited for being expensive.

The groups also prepared an executive summary containing course cost recommendations for the undergraduate deans last fall.

Suggestions included making syllabi available during the course selection period with associated course costs, encouraging students to use older editions of textbooks if possible and allowing students to view articles through Canvas.

Granados recalled a freshman seminar professor who required the class to buy five or six books, but they only ended up reading one chapter of each book.

The Office of Student Registration and Financial Services and the Provost’s Office have also been working on a report describing comprehensive course costs for all undergraduate schools since last fall, but SRFS Director of Communications Karen Hamilton said that there is currently no update on the status of the report.


Sarah Holland, a College junior majoring in Visual Studies, complained of regularly being fooled into thinking that the $75 “course cost” listed next to each course description on department web pages would cover the supplies for the class.

“Multiple times, I haven’t had the money to buy the materials and I’ve done poorly on the projects,” Holland said. “That wouldn’t happen if someone could buy the materials.”

These extra materials might include the purchase of a canvas or having an object bound, which can add another $20 to $30 to the cost of projects.

Students said that many of these costs are highly variable, so it is difficult to predict how much they will have to spend when registering for classes.

MacKenzie said that many these external costs are often related to success in a course. The architecture department wants students to display the most impressive projects in their portfolios and expensive projects generate more visual appeal.

But Undergraduate Chair of the Architecture Department Richard Wesley does not see the course costs associated with architecture courses as very different from other undergraduate courses.

In an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Wesley said that he calculated the printing and model material costs of architectural design studio courses — which do require textbooks — to be almost the same as the estimated book costs for other undergraduate courses, based off of Penn’s estimated book costs for the 2016-2017 school year. Dividing the estimated $1280 book cost per academic year by an average of five credits, undergraduates are spending about $128 per credit unit. Wesley estimated that undergraduate architecture students are spending about $141 per credit unit.


Many university faculty members are not unsympathetic to the difficulty students face in paying for their classes.

Additional costs have always been a fixed part of undergraduate education, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dennis DeTurck said. DeTurck is currently on sabbatical.

He said the College office has seen an increase in courses that have additional fees such as field trips and project materials.

“It’s become too casual,” DeTurck said. “We used to push back gently — now we’re pushing back more forcefully.”

This is in large part due to the increasing socioeconomic diversity of the student body.

He added that it wouldn’t be “all that hard” to work with the administrators in the academic and financial aid departments to allocate resources to the courses that impose extra costs on their students.

“I don’t see why [an extra course fee] should increase the already substantial amount that students must pay for the privilege of taking a course,” DeTurck said.

One solution that’s been previously implemented involves the College splitting the cost of additional fees, such as field trips, with the academic department the first time the course is offered. If the class is offered again, it is the academic department’s responsibility to determine how its budget can be re-designed to cover the cost.

While SCUE, the UA and Penn First are trying to make courses equally accessible, some opportunities within classes may continue to prohibitive.

DeTurck remembered a class a few years ago, when the premiere of Waiting for Godot on Broadway coincided with the reading of the play in an integrated studies course. The faculty learned about the performance without enough time to find a way to cover the cost, and DeTurck said the attitude wound up being: “It’d be great if you can [come], but if you can’t, you can’t.”


Some academic departments don’t always find it possible to foot the bill of course expenses, even if funds are allocated for doing just that.

“Even if we had the funds, it’s really not something we can do as a program to make judgments about who’s deserving and who’s not deserving of those funds if we were trying to do it on the basis of need,” Elaine Simon said. Simon is the Director of the Urban Studies Program and one of the professors for the fieldwork internship course that Granados enrolled in last year.

Simon said she envisions students’ work-study appointments being converted into grants during the course of the internship to avoid placing them in financial strain. Simon said she contacted the financial aid office regarding her proposal last year but she hadn’t heard back.

“I think it’s a lot to ask an undergraduate to work 20 hours a week when some students don’t have to work at all,” Simon said.

To help minimize students’ transportation costs, Simon has suggested students take on local internships and has allowed students to split their internship over two semesters to allow them to maintain a work study job and minimize the working hours in a given semester. In extremely rare cases, she has let students complete policy research internships, which eliminates the travel altogether.

Wharton Professor Maria Rieders has also found creative ways for her students to spend as little money as possible on items for her course, Introduction to Operations Management.

She curated a textbook that contains sections from other, more expensive textbooks that cost far more than the approximately $40 students are charged for her book. She also calls the Lippincott Library to reserve required texts for her classes before each semester so students can borrow them free of charge.

Nursing continues to be one of the more expensive schools for undergraduates. Associate Dean for Nursing Julie Sochalski says nursing uniforms, lab coats, stethoscopes, lab and clinical fees add a hefty sum to nurses’ tuition.

Students can increase their financial aid to cover these costs if they have the documentation, Antoinette Oteri, the Director of Financial Aid for the Nursing School said in an emailed statement. SRFS Senior University Director of Student Financial Aid Elaine Varas said that currently, students are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

However, Wharton senior and Penn First member Seidy Pacheco Chacon said that receiving retroactive financial aid for hidden costs can be complicated.

Xiao also said that the process by which students can receive additional financial aid for their courses needs to be more streamlined.

The major grievance among Nursing students interviewed were the fees associated with clinical sessions and labs. Depending on their year, between $200 and $400 can be charged to nursing students who are either late or absent from a clinical appointment, which teach nursing students different healthcare practices in shifts of 6-12 hours in healthcare facilities.

Many nurses do not have clinical assignments near Penn’s campus, and they are required in almost all cases except for “selected labor and delivery sites” and “home visits,” as stated in the Undergraduate Student BSN Handbook, to pay their own transportation costs.

Valerie Bai, a Nursing junior, has a clinical assignment this semester at Fairmount Behavioral Health System, which is 20-30 minutes away by car. She and her clinical group members take an Uber or Lyft to the site twice a week, since it isn’t easily accessible by SEPTA.

“Over time, we’re [each] going to pay at least $120 for this semester,” Bai said, and that’s only for transportation.


For some students struggling to pay for their courses, cultural centers on campus offer solace, especially when students don’t feel comfortable breaching the subject with professors.

“I probably wouldn’t have talked to [professors] because I didn’t develop a trust with them at all,” College freshman Ariana Hill said. Hill received assistance from the Center for Africana Studies and the Makuu Black Cultural Center to purchase her textbooks last semester.

Before Dr. Brian Peterson, Director of the Makuu Black Cultural Center, bought Hill her writing seminar book, she was sharing with a friend. They’d read it together, or she’d photograph the pages of his book to read alone.

“It wasn’t a huge cost — it was $20, but still, it was money I didn’t have,” she said.

Hill was eventually forced to tell her writing seminar professor that she didn’t have the book when she realized that she’d have to turn in an assignment late. Hill said that her professor, Matthew Johnson, “was definitely shocked.”

In an emailed statement, Peterson said that Makuu encourages students to use and return books from its textbook library every semester and to use other options including library loans and upperclassmen.


Hidden course costs are even a burden to students who receive substantial financial aid packages.

Daniel Gonzalez, a College freshman, QuestBridge scholar and member of Penn First, has a financial aid package that covers his full tuition.

“It’s always a concern to know how much my financial aid extends,” he said, referring to lab fees required for his pre-health coursework and math courses that require students to buy new textbooks so they have access to course codes.

He was successful in getting his course books at low prices last semester, but Gonzalez said that he was worried about his purchasing his expensive Spanish textbook for this semester.

Gonzalez has also struggled with changes in syllabi mid-semester. As a Benjamin Franklin Scholar, professors have changed the list of required texts , forcing him to buy additional books throughout the semester.

Gonzalez said he thinks that course costs should also be considered in terms of time. For students who have work-study appointments, which he does, it’s tough to fit in office hours.

“Before [my work study appointment] I tried not to have anything conflict with my office hours, but now that I have my work study job, I can’t go to at least three [of my courses’] office hours,” Gonzalez said.

Over the summer, Gonzalez worked as a community health worker and earned $3000, which he said he used “to buy a new life, more than [he had] ever had.”

By the end of last semester, he’d spent it all on living and course expenses.

“Basically I’m back to zero, and it’s only been five months.”