New Database Shows Costs and Expenditures at 2,300 U.S. Colleges


A Washington-based nonprofit that aims to monitor college costs and expenditures released an online database this week that makes it easy for prospective students, as well as policymakers, to compare that data for more than 2,300 private and public  nonprofit colleges and universities.

The Trends in College Spending Online database was developed by the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability as a part of its mission to improve college affordability by controlling costs and increasing productivity. Groups involved in the project include Jobs for the Future, the Association of Governing Boards and the American Institutes for Research.

The database draws from information submitted by colleges and universities to the  U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, which means the latest statistics available date to about 2008; it begins with data from 2002. Although the data covers institutions attended by about 90 percent of those enrolled in U.S. colleges, it doesn’t include all colleges and information is limited for some items.

One of the most important findings from a report released at the same time  – Trends in College Spending 1998-2008: Where does the money come from? Where does it go? What does it buy? – is the rapid increase in the percentage of total costs that students pay through their tuition.      For example, at major public research universities, students paid an average of 38.4 percent of the total cost of their education in 1998, with the remainder being paid by state funding, grants, contracts, gifts, etc.  But by 2008, students at these same schools paid an average of 50.5 percent of the total costs of their education, a 31.5 percent increase.

The changes were only slightly less at public community colleges, which generally are less expensive to operate. In 1998, students at these schools paid 23.7 percent of the total cost of their education in tuition, and by 2008 that percentage had grown to 30.9, a rise of 30.4 percent.

Private universities, where students have always paid a greater percentage of the overall costs of their education, showed smaller changes. Students at private research universities paid an average of 69.4 percent  of total costs in 1998 and 72.8 percent of the costs in 2008.

States varied greatly in the amount of subsidies they provide at their major research universities, ranging from a subsidy of 78 percent in Alaska to a subsidy of  just 19 percent in New Hampshire.

The report, by Donna Desrochers, Colleen Lenihan and Jane Wellman (executive director of the Delta Project), found that overall, tuition revenues are now the most stable source of funding for all nonprofit colleges. It also concludes that tuition increases aren’t been fed by increased spending, but by a shift of college costs onto the student.

Their study also shows that the share of colleges’ and universities’ spending for instruction has declined in both good times and bad, and a larger percentage of costs are now going to administrative and academic infrastructure.

“The current prolonged recession means that we can no longer expect new revenue to pay for increasing attainment in higher education,” Wellman said in a statement released with the report.  “Institutions – from the Ivies to the community colleges – are going to have to develop investment strategies that support goals for attainment. That will require new habits: looking at spending, and promoting values of efficiency and cost effectiveness as co-partners to the never-ending search for new revenues.”

This is the third in a series of reports on Trends in College Spending. The first was issued in April 2008 and the second in January 2009. All are available here.


Previous coverage on this topic: A Jobs for the Future report released in January.  A summary is here.