• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Tuition Payer's Receipt

What if we practiced total transparency over where tuition goes?

May 19, 2016


What if we gave students (and parents) a detailed receipt for their tuition payments?

I’m not talking about the nebulous breakdown of fees and charges most now receive, but something like the “taxpayer receipt” put out by the government (2014 version here) that gives the breakdown of how our federal income tax monies are spent, e.g., 28 cents out of every dollar goes to health care, 25 cents to the military, etc…

My experience is that students (and parents) have little knowledge of tuition and how it factors into higher ed budgets. Heck, I think most faculty (me included, until I started digging into this a little), would have a hard time off the tops of their heads estimating the amount of overall budget (and share of tuition) going to instruction versus administration. How many of us know how much tuition money winds up in athletics or IT?

Even deeper in the budgetary weeds, how much of your institution’s budget goes to servicing construction bond payments? How much interest is being paid on bonds issued for that new dorm, or football stadium or lazy river or science lab?[1] 

Because we have turned a college education into a private consumer good, I believe it’s extremely difficult to shake free of a consumer mindset when thinking about higher ed and cost.

When I ask my students if they think College of Charleston makes a “profit” on their tuition, they almost unanimously say “yes.” This appears to be rooted in their feelings about how much they’re paying in tuition. Tuition is so expensive, there must be something left over.[2]

On further reflection, they know this isn’t true, that they’re at a non-profit institution and that public colleges aren’t in the business turning a profit on students. Still, they wonder (I wonder) where’s all that money going?

I don’t really wish to litigate what institutions are spending and how they’re spending it in this particular space, or this particular time. If you ask a dozen people why college is so expensive you get a dozen different answers. There’s likely truth in all of them.

But if we’re going to move the conversation forward, wouldn’t it help for all interested parties to actually know what it is we’re talking about when we’re talking about the money that comes from students and where it’s going, particularly now that tuition is a larger share of budgets than state contributions?

Students (and parents) should probably be better informed about the adjunctification of faculty, and depending on the institution, that a significant portion of their gen ed courses are taught by people making (on average) $3500 per course. They should know if more money goes to administration than instruction.

Students (and parents) should know more about the role their school plays in the “$10 billion Sports Tab.” If you go to the University of Alabama, you may be thrilled by that information. If you go to College of Charleston, where the athletics department exists on 77% subsidy (92% of which is funded by student fees), you might have a different response.[3]

Or not. Right now, we just don’t know, because students (and parents) aren’t encouraged or empowered to know.

The point is that without the information, we’ll never get to a discussion that allows us to engage at the level of our values. I believe, deep down, that most of us inside of higher ed probably have similar goals for our students, to learn meaningful things that will allow them to thrive in all dimensions later in their lives. That may include athletics and lazy rivers and climbing walls or suite-style dorms.

This is not an argument for students to be more informed consumers so they make a better choice. Receiving an education is not buying a television.

Students (and parents) are stakeholders in their educations, and because of that, need to be given more information than the bottom line so they can self-advocate and help shape the institutions to which they belong.

I’m not so naïve to believe schools will start doing this en masse. (Is anyone doing something similar? Please share in the comments.)

But if institutions fear this level of transparency with students/parents/faculty, I have to ask, why?




[1] If you’re Cal-Berkely, something like $4.5 million per year is going toward paying for their football complex.

[2] In fact, CofC had a $2 million budget deficit, primarily rooted in falling short of enrollment goals for out of state students.

[3] College of Charleston doesn’t make a profit on student tuition, but they do take about $1200 per student per year and transfer it to athletics.


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