Student Life Fee
The Student Life Fee is paid by Columbia undergraduates to fund a variety student services, including athletics, CUIT, CCE, student activities, etc. For the 2013-2014 school year, the fee is $1,432. For the portion allocated to students activities, think of it this way: it's money you (or your parents) hand over to student bureaucrats, from whom you must then beg for the money back.
Student Activity Fee
The student activity fee as we know it (a component of the student life fee) dates back to 1978-1979, when Columbia College students voted to create the Columbia College Student Council (CC had been without a student governing body since the abolition of the Board of Student Representatives in 1961) and establish a student activities fee. Prior to that, student activity funding depended on an annual allocation by the central administration from the university budget. The fee proposed, and eventually approved, in 1978 was $20. It has been a source of aggravation and controversy ever since. The activity fee had climbed to $216 by 2012.
Since its humble beginnings, the student activities fee has been rolled into the student life fee. In 2012-2013, the student activity fee made up only $216 of the $1,396 student life fee.
An early version of the student activities fee existed until 1935, when the University ceased collecting the fee and handling the funding which had primarily supported student publications, instead adopting a policy of "complete freedom", granting the publications financial and editorial independence. A voluntary student subscription scheme was run by the Student Association from 1940-1946 to keep the publications afloat, at which point the central administration resumed financial support, though possibly without reinstituting the student fee.
Student Life Fee
By the late 2000s, the student life fee was shrouded in mystery and the administration refused to make a public breakdown of the fees uses. Apparently they were concerned about nasty comments on bwog and spectator. In fall 2012, a breakdown was finally released. Of the $1,396 fee that year, $390 went to the athletics department, $376 to Columbia University Information Technology, $216 for student activities, $66 to the Center for Career Education, $64 for printing, and $62 for debt service on Lerner Hall. There is also a $220 “house fee” and a $2 “cross-cutting multi-school activities fee.”