Delta Project reports on college costs

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February 3, 2009

12:19 AM

The Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability recently published a report indicating that college students are paying more for their education, while less money is being spent on classroom instruction.

The report titled “Trends in College Spending: Where Does the money Come From? Where Does It Go?” is the second to be published by the Delta Project. The analysis of trends in revenues and spending for nearly 2,000 public and private universities from 2002 to 2006 states that it is “the most up-to-date and comprehensive assessment of higher education finance in the nation.”

According to the report, “the share of educational costs represented by student tuition rose from just over one-third to nearly one-half at public four-year institutions.” At the same time, “total spending on education and related services declined for all types of institutions except research universities.”

The report says that the increases in tuition revenues from 2002 to 2006 were mostly used to offset revenue losses in other areas such as state funding.

Economics professor Robert Archibald, who is currently authoring a book called “Why Does College Cost So Much?” with fellow economics professor David Feldman, is skeptical of some of the claims of the Delta Project report.

The assertion that universities are contributing less money to the education of students doesn’t convince Archibald.

“They have made an arbitrary division of the data, and I think you have to be very careful about that,” Archibald said. “They’re dividing [college expenses] up into what they call the educational costs, but that’s a hornet’s nest that you don’t want to get into, in my view.”

However, Archibald agreed that student tuition has risen as a percentage of the total cost of education, and that decreases in state funding are largely to blame.

“The conclusion that they make about tuition covering a higher percentage of costs is true. That’s unambiguously the case,” Archibald said. “We have a case study in hand at William and Mary: The state is paying for less, and we haven’t ramped up private donations enough to cover the difference, so tuitions go up.”

Yet, Archibald believes that the recent tuition increases have been justified.

“Productivity is inversely related to quality,” Archibald said. “If we increase our productivity that means more students per professor, and it’s likely to be a lower quality education.”

A reduction in unimportant costs is not a practical solution either, Archibald explained.

“We have cut, and cut and cut … we are a very lean institution right now. If there’s waste, it’s well hidden,” he said.

Archibald was not overly critical of the government either.

“I have a certain amount of sympathy for the governor,” Archibald said. “Everything that you can charge for, you’re going to charge more for to try and maintain the quality of the state services. It’s not what they want to do — the alternative would be to increase taxes, but it’s probably not the best time in the economic business cycle to do that.”

According to Archibald, it also seems that the recent tuition hikes will not be stopping soon.
Despite the depressing outlook, there is a long-term solution that could make college tuition more affordable in the future.

“The current students [at the College] need to get a sense that private support is going to be really important for maintaining the quality of what we do here,” Archibald said. “That’s a long-term prospect, but it’s the change that has to happen.”

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