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Where does student tuition money go? It’s time for colleges to answer

In the digital age, there’s no excuse for lacking transparency.

Few costs of American life have risen as quickly as the that of a higher education. In the last decade, average tuition has risen 80 percent, twice as much as healthcare costs and four times as much as housing costs rose in that same time period. With the average college graduate owing nearly $30,000 in student debt, Americans now owe a total of $1.2 trillion to colleges, exceeding credit card debt and only being surpassed by mortgages. These daunting statistics have been met with a sizeable online movement to hold the universities themselves responsible, with some even arguing for total student debt forgiveness.

As the cost of tuition looms larger for a new generation, even less is known about what those massive bills are used for by colleges. Tuition and aid structures are notoriously complex at colleges and universities. Stanford was applauded on the Internet for its plan to allow any student with family income below $125,000 to attend tuition free—not for being charitable, but for being so simple. Which costs are covered by endowments and donations versus the costs covered by your tuition is not nearly as transparent, however.

Colleges could make it surprisingly easy to display exactly the breakdown of costs your tuition goes towards, but they tend to hide it in a labyrinthine collection of Powerpoint slides and spreadsheets, all without actually telling you what portion of your money is going to instruction and faculty or sports and entertainment. Considering it’s a debt that will likely follow them for most of their adult lives, it should be every student’s right to be educated on where that money has gone—and whether that debt was ever worth it in the first place.

Especially in the digital age, displaying such cost breakdowns has been a staple of government programs for some time. When President Obama signed the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act into law (otherwise known as the post-recession stimulus meant to boost job growth), his administration unveiled Recovery.gov, an easy-to-use site that showed the exact breakdown of that bill’s $840 billion down to the location of projects and contractors used to complete them. The website went on to break down spending on Hurricane Sandy relief in similar detail.

WhiteHouse.org even offers a Taxpayer Receipt: Just enter what you paid in Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes and the site gives a comprehensive list of where your money is going, from national defense to agriculture. Such simple public outreach programs have made some wonder whether the federal government should simply buy out the cost of a public education in the same way Obama hopes to make most community colleges free.

There’s no honest reason colleges couldn’t replicate the transparency of the federal government on what they’re spending all of our money on, and it wouldn’t require a government takeover to do so. The issue isn’t just about fairness and transparency. It also speaks to a much simpler idea: Students are customers of these colleges, and they deserve to know what their money is spent on. Such transparency can open up a new metric by which prospective students and families can assess colleges. And it’s in colleges’ interest to manage the conversation surrounding college cost breakdowns; when journalists and researchers do it, what they find is far from flattering.

One recurring theme in such research is the rising cost of student athletics and its impact on tuition costs. College sports participation has grown significantly over the past decade, mostly spurred by the increase of women’s sports programs. In its most recent data, the National College Athletics Association saw a spurt of 72,000 participants over a 10-year period, bringing the total of registered college athletes at participating schools to 444,00. Despite a reputation as being a cash cow for some colleges, however, most college sports programs are actually a drag on an institution’s finances.

Despite big crowds for college football and basketball, most other student athletics see zero revenue and high costs. According to Andrew Hacker and Claudie Driefus of the Los Angeles Times, Duke University’s golf team spent an estimated $20,405 per player. Despite the continued popularity of its famous men’s basketball team, the recent winners of the NCAA Championship game, Duke sports programs saw a net profit of just 0.4 percent of its total revenue. And this reflects itself in Duke’s absurd $60,000 annual tuition.

This is far from atypical: An NCAA study found college sports revenue had grown only 3.2 percent between between 2012-2013, yet expenses for these programs had risen 10.6 percent. In fact, only 20 colleges see any profit from their sports programs. Such staggering statistics should be on the mind of every prospective and current college student—not to mention donation-ready alumni still paying off debts—but are often kept under wraps. That NCAA study won’t even say which colleges it is that earn those profits.

Of course, sports is far from the only reason tuition has risen so sharply in recent years. Colleges have also seen increases in administrative costs and a reliance on expensive adjunct professors. But the disparity between the cost of sports and what tuition should be spent on (namely instruction and reducing class sizes) shows a striking need for transparency on the part of colleges. Other than hiding their own incompetence, there’s no reason that a public school should ever be able to keep their expenses as well hidden as most American colleges do today. 

Opening up their books to show us exactly where are tuition goes will help students make more responsible decisions about their future—and hopefully allow colleges and universities to do the same.

Photo via audiolucistore/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.