By: Sam Dillon
New York Times, July 8, 2010
American colleges are spending a declining share of their budgets on instruction and more on administration and recreational facilities for students, according to a study of college costs released Friday.
The report, based on government data, documents a growing stratification of wealth across America’s system of higher education.
At the top of the pyramid are private colleges and universities, which educate a small portion of the nation’s students, while public universities and community colleges, where tuitions are rising most rapidly, serve greater numbers and have fewer resources.
The study of revenues and spending trends of American institutions of higher education from 1998 through 2008 traces how the patterns at elite private institutions like Harvard and Amherst differed from sprawling public universities like Ohio State and community colleges like Alabama Southern.
The United States is reputed to have the world’s wealthiest postsecondary education system, with average spending of around $19,000 per student compared with $8,400 across other developed countries, said the report, “Trends in College Spending 1998-2008,” by the Delta Cost Project, a nonprofit group in Washington that promotes greater scrutiny of college costs to keep tuitions affordable.
“Our analysis shows that these comparisons are misleading,” Jane Wellman, the group’s executive director, said in an e-mail statement. “While the United States has some of the wealthiest institutions in the world, it also has a ‘system’ of postsecondary education with far more economic stratification than is true of any other country.”
Community colleges, which enroll about a third of students, spend close to $10,000 per student per year, Ms. Wellman said, while private research institutions, which enroll far fewer students, spend an average of $35,000 a year for each one.
Undergraduate and graduate enrollments nationwide grew to 18.6 million students overall in 2008 from 14.8 million in 1998, an increase of 26 percent, the report said. Among all the sectors that make up American postsecondary education, public community colleges added the most students over the decade, growing to 6.3 million from 5 million.
By comparison, enrollment at private colleges and universities grew to 2 million students from 1.8 million in the 10 years.
Tuition, on average, increased more rapidly over the decade at public institutions than it did at private ones. Average tuition rose 45 percent at public research universities and 36 percent at community colleges from 1998 to 2008, compared with about 21 percent at private research universities.
But the trend toward increased spending on nonacademic areas prevailed across the higher education spectrum, with public and private, elite and community colleges increasing expenditures more for student services than for instruction, the report said.
The student services category can include spending on career counseling and financial aid offices, but also on intramural athletics and student centers.
“This is the country-clubization of the American university,” said Richard K. Vedder, a professor at Ohio University who studies the economics of higher education. “A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student union buildings. In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities.”
On average, spending on instruction increased 22 percent over the decade at private research universities, about the same as tuition, but 36 percent for student services and 36 percent for institutional support, a category that includes general administration, legal services and public relations, the study said.
At public research universities, spending for student services rose 20 percent over the decade, compared with 10 percent for instruction.
Even at community colleges, with their far smaller budgets, spending on students services increased 9.5 percent, compared with 3.4 percent for instruction.
The study also said that the recession that began in the last months of 2008 had dramatically changed the economics of higher education, probably forever.
“The funding models we’ve created in higher ed are not sustainable,” Ms. Wellman said. “We ran up spending in the ’90s and early 2000s to levels we can’t maintain, and this is true not only in the elite privates, but in many of the public institutions, too.”
Now, with private-college endowments battered and state legislatures slashing university budgets coast to coast, “policy makers as well as university presidents and boards must learn to be better stewards of tuition and taxpayer dollars,” she said.
The Delta Cost Project, founded in 2007, is governed by a three-member board and financed in part by the Lumina Foundation. The project says it “focuses on the spending side of the college cost problem, how institutional spending relates to access and success, and ways that costs can be controlled without compromising quality.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 9, 2010
The headline with an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that American colleges spend more on recreation than on instruction. The study showed that the share of spending on recreation was rising more quickly than the share of spending on instruction.