April 26, 2009

What are the costs of education at universities? A quibble

Sara Goldrick-Rab reports on Kevin Carey's visit to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. One thing about his comments and the Delta Project on higher-ed costs makes me wonder about the failure to talk about messy data with college costs, or rather what Goldrick-Rab reports on his comments:

Of course, Madison is a research university, a very good one, and research is expensive. So let's set all that research aside and look only at spending on what the feds classify as "instruction, academic support, and student services."

The problem is that it's not possible to rely on IPEDS reports to separate out the costs of research from the costs of instruction etc. If you want to read the relevant glossary items from IPEDS, you can scroll down this page to "instruction," but the gist is that IPEDS cost reporting for instruction can include a broad range of stuff you could describe as research-oriented including the salary of faculty (WITH time spent on research), salaries of academic deans, and even in some cases the depreciation of buildings when distributed to different functional categories. I don't know where graduate research assistant stipends and tuition waivers would be counted, but the point is that even without delving into support and student-services categories, lots of spending at research universities that is research oriented is counted as instruction for IPEDS purposes. Essentially, the IPEDS cost categories are functional to a moderate extent but not comparatively useful in the way that many assume.

That messiness makes it hard to have productive political conversations around instructional costs. On principle, Carey is right: students deserve the same general education wherever they go, and flagship public universities are often favored over community colleges and regional or directional state universities. But the key adverb is "often," and in some states it's a favored community college that receives interesting treatment (e.g., Northwest Florida State College and the Destin airport hangar... oops, educational building at the airport 15 miles from campus). And historical trends are relevant: many states ramped up raw-dollar investment in community colleges in the 1970s and 1980s as they were starting to disinvest in universities when examined per-pupil. That doesn't make the institutions equal by any means, but I suspect institutional leaders can point to inequities in how their sector has been treated by the legislature. They're different inequities, of course.

I don't mind Carey's asking the question about the relative costs of instruction -- even based on mediocre data, it's the right question. But I don't think it's easy by any means to have a single formula that apportions instructional costs per student FTE, advising and support costs per head-count, and research infrastructure with some other function. I'd love to be proved wrong with something that would be politically robust and not end up with all state support being zeroed out (in which case all institutions are certainly treated equally), so kibitzing is most welcome!

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Tags: college affordability, higher education, research
Posted in Higher education on April 26, 2009 9:50 AM |