New Study Highlights the Growing Challenge of College Affordability

The Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability has released a new study that reveals how college students and their families are picking up more and more of the costs as schools reduce the percentage of their budgets devoted
to instruction.

The Delta Project — a nonprofit organization that aims to shed light on the challenge of affordability in higher education — created the study to “follow the money” in higher education and try to determine why college tuition costs keep rising dramatically while the quality of instruction seems to get no better (and in some cases, get worse). The study paints a rather bleak picture: The schools where the most students are — state institutions and community colleges — spend the least on instruction per student. Where they have made spending cuts or diverted money away from programs that directly improve student instruction, it’s the students themselves that frequently make up the gap with their own dollars.

In 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available, students are public schools paid for about half the cost of their education, up from approximately 40% just four years earlier. Students actually pay even more of their share at private schools: Their share rose from about 58% in 2002 to more than 63% in 2006.

The report paints the picture of growing administrative overhead gobbling up schools’ budgets, with the percentage of budgets growing at all types of schools from the mid-1990s to 2006. Meanwhile, in all cases at all schools, students’ tuition fees rose faster than spending, with some of this difference going toward increasing overhead.

Compounding the problem for public universities and community colleges, these schools are also the ones that are most likely to feel the brunt of budget cuts at the state and federal level. Assuming government spending on education faces more cuts in the coming year, The Delta Project predicts that these trends may even accelerate. While the U.S. higher education system is still the class of the world, the growing affordability gap threatens to undo this strength in the near future unless something changes soon.

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