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Approximately 37 percent of the operating budget of the University of Cincinnati comes from student tuition and fees. This is double the share provided by the state of Ohio (17 percent).

Students paying the lion’s share of the institutional budget is pretty typical. At the University of South Carolina, 50 percent of the budget comes from tuition and fees. At my sometime employer, the College of Charleston, 75 percent of the budget comes from student money. Students contribute more than seven times the South Carolina state appropriation.

Do that math at your own public institution and you’ll see something similar. Every single one is entirely dependent on tuition dollars to run.

Student protests of how their institutions are treating issues such as diversity seem to generate a lot of pushback and scorn -- at least among some commenters at this website -- but I wonder if folks will view the Boldly Bankrupt website put together by the UC Activist Coalition differently.

Boldly Bankrupt is a play on the university’s Boldly Bearcat slogan, and the website is designed to bring “transparency and accountability” to the budgeting process for the university. The group is most specifically critical of the $30 million athletics subsidy and what they believe to be inflated salaries for high-level administrators and athletics officials.

That athletics subsidy represents $1,200 of each full-time undergraduate student’s tuition and fees that is repurposed to sports. Eliminating the subsidy would result in an immediate 10 percent tuition cut for all students.

The site says that the administrative budget “almost doubled” from 2009 to 2016. It questions priorities in choosing “flashy building projects” over adequate student housing.

The site highlights that three-quarters of University of Cincinnati faculty say they have insufficient resources to do their work. Over half “strongly agree” that the current budgeting model has “negatively affected” the core academic mission.

The site also includes a section of (unvetted) “testimonials,” which must be viewed with some caution as to their absolute accuracy of facts, but can certainly be trusted as honest sentiments of members of the University of Cincinnati community.

Student protests are often dismissed as mere “feelings,” as though feelings don’t matter (they do), but here is a form of protest that is not couched in feelings but a hard look at the budgetary data, juxtaposed against the choices of institutional leadership. This constituency sees a gap between mission and execution, and they’re calling out those in charge over the gap.

This is an argument over values, and in my view there is no better documentation of the real values of an institution or organization than its budget. The money don’t lie.

The words of one of the testimonials pretty much sums up the overall sentiments, “Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the point of an academic institution to support education?”

Yes. Or at least it should be. Unfortunately, public disinvestment in this formerly public good has forced schools into a different model. As Carol Christ, now chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, said in 2016, “Colleges and universities are fundamentally in the business of enrolling students for tuition dollars.”

Unfortunately, competition for tuition dollars is actually hugely expensive and inefficient and has institutions spending on symbols of prestige that have nothing to do with educational quality. The mission as Christ frames it is fundamentally at odds with education. The University of Cincinnati students are making some noise about this problem.

The result, as illustrated by multiple studies, is a disconnect between mission and operations, between values and actions. The specifics of the Boldly Bankrupt website illustrate how this looks at one institution.

It’s important to know, however, that Cincinnati is in no way unique. I’m certain people at other institutions can tell very similar stories about the high cost of competition on their institutional missions.

I’m encouraged by Boldly Bankrupt because it is an example of the direct stakeholders taking specific action.

In fact, I’d love to see something like this repeated for every single public institution. We could even create a “scorecard” since we know how much people like metrics. Here are some of the things that I think should be transparent to students.

  1. Percentage of institutional funding from state appropriation
  2. Percentage of institutional funding from student tuition and fees
  3. Annual athletics subsidy (both total and per student)
  4. Percentage of overall budget dedicated specifically to instruction
  5. Percentage of faculty in full-time tenured or at least contracted positions

What would you add?

How’s your institution doing?

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