Colleges focus more on services, computer centers
Most of the nation’s colleges are gradually paring back their investments in classroom teaching, an analysis of federal data shows.
And all colleges have in recent years been spending a greater share of their revenue on expenses other than instruction, including computing centers, student services, administrative salaries and lawn care.
Those are among findings of a report released Thursday that sheds light on where various types of colleges and universities get their money and how they spend it. While instruction remains the largest share of education and general spending at most colleges, much of the revenue raised by increasing tuition is not going to that core function of higher education, it concludes.
With one notable exception, “Students are paying for more and arguably getting less, particularly in the classroom,” says Jane Wellman, director of the Delta Cost Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that released the report. It is based on federally reported data from 2002 to 2006 of nearly 2,000 public and private institutions that enroll about 75 percent of all college students.
The exception is private research universities, which spend more per student than any other sector, but which enroll fewer students overall than most other institutions.
The report found that total spending on education and related services, including academic and administrative support, remained flat or declined between 2002 and 2006 everywhere but at those institutions, which can draw from more sources, including endowment income.
That could change as more private research universities, including Cornell, Harvard and Yale, see precipitous drops in their endowments.
At public colleges and universities, much of the decline in instruction spending, which is primarily faculty salaries and benefits, can be linked to a decline in state appropriations.
“I don’t think institutions have decided to disinvest in instruction,” Wellman says, but their spending patterns do show “a lack of a strategic approach.”
“The quickest place to cut costs is in instructional programs. When the primary focus is on balancing the budget from year to year, you grab what you can and spend where you must,” Wellman says.
Existing data can’t speak to the quality of education, nor is it detailed enough to determine whether specific spending is justified. A key goal of the report is to encourage institutions and policymakers to be more transparent about their finances.
“Policymakers and the public are showing increasing skepticism about spending in higher education, questioning whether tuition increases are helping to expand access and improve quality,” it says. “The data in this report show that this is a valid question.”