Student Gym Pass – Ancillary Fee or User Fee?

Recently my alma mater, the University of Manitoba, has been debating whether to go with a universal ancillary fee model for a student gym pass. This would be in opposition to the current model which charges $140 for an 8 month membership and $176 for 12 months. For those of you who are not familiar with what ‘ancillary fee’ refers to, take a look at the fee breakdown for your tuition. While your academic courses do take up the lion’s share of what you pay, there are also numerous other fees that get lumped in and collected with the amount required for your courses. These fees are often collected for recycling, student newspapers, health plans, and other student services. (Related: Student Bus Pass)

I was definitely surprised to find out just how many schools use the ancillary fee model when I looked it up. I guess I just figured that since the University of Manitoba seemed like a pretty ‘average’ university, that it would have fallen in line with the rest. This is definitely not the case. I looked at schools from coast-to-coast and the vast majority lump in fees for use of the recreational facilities along with the other ancillary fees and academic course costs. In fact, out of the twenty or so universities I browsed through, the only one that had a similar model to the U of M’s was UBC. UBC charges a flat rate of $25 per semester, so it is quite a bit cheaper than my old stomping grounds, and I wonder if this isn’t subsidized in some way. I couldn’t see any proof of it on their website so maybe their athletic facilities are just more efficient than the U of M’s.

Student gym pass
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My first thought was that I had gotten the short end of the stick while paying for a gym pass all these years. After all, it stands to reason that if every student on campus was ‘forced’ to buy a gym pass then the cost-per-student should be a lot lower. It turns out however, that it’s not that simple. I had a difficult time trying to find the ancillary fee breakdown of many universities, but the ones I did find made it very confusing to try to figure out just how much of the money went to pay for recreational facility usage. You see universities are great at giving fees vague names that make them sound acceptable. For example, Lakehead University in Thunder pay does not make students pay for a gym pass. Instead the money is included in their tuition fees. Now they take $100 for “Student Athletic Fees” and another $70 for “Athletic Building Fees.” Maybe one covers infrastructure, and the other basic staff and maintenance or something, but the bottom line is that the students definitely do pay for their “free student gym pass” in the end.

A Student Gym Pass Can Get Expensive In Some Places

The other cases where I found some usable numbers for athletic fees had quite a large range. The University of Toronto topped the list, charging each student an astounding $270 per year in ancillary fees relating to athletic facilities. Imagine paying over $1000 over the course of your degree whether you use the gym or not! For comparison purposes, the University of Winnipeg charged $36 per student, Xavier charged a flat $100 per student, and the University of Saskatchewan charged $32 in “Athletic Fees” and $27 in “Recreation Fees.” The wide disparity in numbers tells me that either there is a huge gap in the ability of certain people to run gyms, or the more likely explanation is that some universities pay for part of the recreational expenses from other budgets (impossible to tell since there are no defined criteria).

These numbers eventually lead us to the debate of whether it is fair to charge every student a flat ancillary fee rate to run the school’s athletic facilities. The athlete in me does see some advantages in this model. If you have a gym pass (whether you want one or not) you are more likely to make use of the gym. It also helps keep costs low for everyone (at least in theory… don’t tell that to a U of T student). It would also make life a lot easier for staff at facilities since they wouldn’t have to worry so much about memberships etc. That being said, I generally hate the idea of ancillary fess. I am conservative (small c) by nature, and I’ve worked in enough bureaucratic roles to know how much waste inevitably occurs when you take people’s money automatically. There is just NEVER the same efficiency as when that gym has to compete with others. Consequently, I think that almost any ancillary fee is by nature a bad idea. Why should students who never use the gym have to pay for those that do? By the same token, I don’t feel like fees should be collected for a lot of other things on campus either. If you want a service or product then pay for it out of your own pocket. Without these basic competitive values you get the dark underbelly of corrupted student politics, and bureaucratic administration wasting money everywhere you turn (which is unfortunately the case on far too many campuses).

The rate to use the gym at the University of Manitoba is pretty reasonable. Most decent gyms such as Shapes and Goodlife offer discounts for a student gym pass, but you’re still looking at around $40 per month minimum for use of the facilities. Sure the weights might be shinier, and the place might have a few more windows (the “Gritty Grotto” at the U of M is pretty legendary for being totally underground), but overall the facilities at the U of M were just fine. You also got access to a much wider variety of options that you would at the average strip mall workout center. You see, that’s the beauty of competition. If someone down the street wants to appeal to a group of customers that enjoy the elitist feeling of using brand new equipment, in a well lit, extraordinarily well ventilated environment, then they should be allowed to do so. It keeps everyone honest and gives more people exactly what they want. Personally, I preferred the ‘blue collar’ feel of the university facilities, but I’m glad everyone had the choice. Students at Lakehead, Calgary, Waterloo, Saskatchewan, and Toronto (amongst others) don’t have that option and no matter how much you support healthy lifestyles, that’s just not fair.

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10 years ago

I think that investing in your health, and supporting these services, athletic or recreation fees, far outweighs the costs you have added on to your school fees. It disappoints me when students cry about how much they have to pay, and not realize that it will be significant less, than what they will have to pay later on when they are sick.

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