Colleges: Where the money goes


At Pomona College, a top-flight liberal arts school, this year’s sticker price for tuition and fees is a hefty $38,394 (not including room and board). Even after adjusting for inflation, that comes to 2.9 times what Pomona was charging a generation ago, in 1980.

College: In a Sept. 12 Op-Ed article about rising tuition, a reference about Amherst College should have said “tenured,” not “full,” professors. —

This kind of massive tuition increase is the norm. In New England, Williams College charges $41,434, or an inflation-adjusted 3.2 times what it did 30 years ago. USC’s current tab of $41,022 is a 3.6 multiple of its 1980 bill.

Tuition at public universities, in a time of ailing state budgets, has risen at an even faster rate. The University of Illinois’ current $13,658 is six times its 1980 rate after adjusting for inflation. San Jose State’s $6,250 is a whopping 11 times more.

If you look at how that added revenue is being spent, it’s hard to argue that students are getting a lot of extra value for all that extra money. Why? Colleges aren’t spending their extra revenues, which we calculate to be about $40 billion a year nationally over 1980 revenues, in ways that most benefit students.

One thing colleges are spending more on is athletic teams, which have become a more pronounced — and costly — presence on campuses everywhere. Even volleyball teams travel extensively these days, with paid coaches and customized uniforms. Currently, 629 schools have football teams — 132 more than in 1980. And all but 14 of them lose money, including some with national names. It’s true that alumni donations sometimes increase during winning seasons, but most of those gifts go specifically to athletics or other designated uses, not toward general educational programs.

And meanwhile, the cost of sports continues to rise. The average football squad has gone from 82 to 102 players, due to sub-specialties required by esoteric coaching strategies. The number of women’s sports teams has also risen sharply. Since 1980, for example, the number of women’s soccer programs has soared from 80 to 956. And teams cost money — often lots of it. Varsity golf at Duke, open to both genders, costs an estimated $20,405 per player per year. Because there are no revenues for most sports, the deficits often have to be covered by tuition bills.

Another source of increased expense is administration. Since 1980, the number of administrators per student at colleges has about doubled; on most campuses their numbers now match the number of faculty. Here are some of their titles: senior specialist of assessment; director for learning communities; assistant dean of students for substance education; director of knowledge access services.

Needless to say, these officials claim that they offer needed services. Who can be opposed to ensuring access and assessment? But let’s not forget that tuition pays for all these deans and directors; having more of them means higher bills for students.

Added tuition revenue has also gone to raise faculty salaries. Yale’s full-time faculty members now average $129,400, up 64% in inflation-adjusted dollars from what they made in 1980. (Pay in other sectors of the U.S. economy rose only about 5% in this period.) Stanford’s tenured and tenure-track professors are doing even better, averaging $153,900, an 83% increase over 1980.

We’re told such stipends are needed to get top talent, but we’re not so sure. Faculty stars may raise prestige, but they are often away from the classroom, having negotiated frequent paid leaves and smaller teaching loads — underwritten, of course, by tuition. At Williams College this year, for example, three of seven religion professors are taking off all or part of the academic year.

Complete data on college presidents’ pay is easily accessible only back to 1991. Yet even in that relatively short span, many college leaders have seen their salaries double in inflation-adjusted dollars. Carleton’s president today gets 2.4 times more than the president did 19 years ago; at NYU, pay has risen by 2.7 times. Measured another way, it takes the tuitions of 31 Vanderbilt students to cover their president’s $1.2-million annual stipend. We have yet to see evidence that lofting more money to the top enhances the quality of instruction.

In theory, all this extra tuition money should permit the hiring of more junior faculty, which might mean smaller introductory courses. But on many campuses, huge classes remain the norm. One reason is that most teaching budgets are consumed by senior professors. Amherst’s tenured professors absorb 77% of the cash available for full-time faculty. At Berkeley, they sop up 73%. At Northern Arizona, it’s 75%. The little that’s left is parceled out among junior professors and underpaid adjuncts, who despite rising tuitions are doing an increasing portion of the teaching.

The cost of room and board has gone up sharply too, with charges often double or more in inflation-adjusted dollars. At Bowdoin and UCLA, they have gone up three times. Most college tours will show that student living standards have risen too. Rooms once had only iron cots, military mattresses and battered desks. Now suites are wired for electronic gear, with fully-equipped kitchens down the hall. Penn State enables students to legally download music — at last count about 2 million songs a week.

As to dining, food costs may be lower than ever, but not on college campuses, where the quality of campus dining has become a marketing tool. If your memories of dorm food include mystery meat and overcooked vegetables, you’d be in for a shock on today’s campuses. Here were some recent choices in the Middlebury College dining rooms: sun-dried tomato pizzas, African couscous, tandoori chicken, orange-ginger tofu steak, red beans and basmati rice. Whether these more elaborate menus make students more studious is not known.

The travesty of high tuition is that most of the extra charges aren’t going for education. Administrators, athletics and amenities get funded, while history departments are denied new assistant professors. A whole generation of young Americans is being shortchanged, largely by adults who have carved out good careers in places we call colleges.

Andrew Hacker is on the faculty of Queens College and Claudia Dreifus teaches at Columbia University. Their book, “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It,” came out last month.