Does it cost the same amount of money to educate 10,000 students as 50,000 students?
No — but that is essentially the argument Paul Campos makes in his April 4 New York Times op-ed, The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much.
The Facts Speak Differently
Here are a number of facts from the National Center for Education Statistics:
- Undergraduate college enrollments increased from 7.4 million to 17.7 million students between 1970 and 2012.
- 76 percent of undergraduates in 2012 enrolled in public institutions — that is, colleges and universities that have historically received a significant portion of their financial support from their states.
- State spending for higher education, which plummeted during the 2008 recession, has yet to come close to pre-recession levels.
To argue that overall spending on higher education has increased without considering the explosion in the number of students pursuing a college education is akin to arguing that you can feed 100 people for the same cost as you can feed 10!
The Drop in Public Funding
Analyses by the Delta Cost Project put the decline in public subsidies in perspective. As a percentage of spending focused on the academic mission of higher education (which is to say, costs relating mainly to instruction and student services as opposed to those associated with research or bookstores or dorms), tuition income made up 38 percent of these expenditures in public research universities in 2001, while subsidies — primarily state appropriations — covered 62 percent. Just a decade later, this relationship had reversed, with tuition covering 60 percent of spending and subsidies covering 40 percent. Non-research public colleges and universities also saw declines in their subsidies over the same time frame, though theirs were not as dramatic.
The Reality for Public Colleges and Universities
We also need to consider that it may actually cost more to provide a meaningful college education to a more diverse population. That said, even spending per student — which is certainly a reasonable metric — fails to account for the changes in the student population and their needs over time. Students today are far more diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, family background, and even educational preparation for college. Moreover, colleges are under pressure not just to admit a diverse student population, but to graduate them as well. Policy makers and consumers alike consider graduation rates to be an important metric for assessing institutions — and reasonably so.
Whatever the explanation, there is a reason that higher education analysts use per student measures to gauge revenue and spending changes over time. While it’s not necessarily the case that more money per student means a better education, you certainly can’t provide a quality education without a basic level of funding. And much less of that funding is coming from public sources.