Why Do College Costs Skyrocket Year After Year?

More professors per student? Try again

Amid an ongoing national debate about college affordability, one of the largest factors driving costs is the expansion of a spiderweb of academic support services.

Michigan’s 15 state universities incurred a nearly $123 million increase in their spending on academic support services over the past four years, according to a report from the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency. Spending went from $661.0 million in 2010-11 to $784.4 million in 2014-15, an increase of 18.7 percent in just four years.

Meanwhile, tuition and fees at the institutions rose 16 percent during the same period.

The report defines “academic support services” as activities “related to instruction, research, and public service” — but not those things themselves. In addition to administrative expenses, it includes people who work at university libraries, museums, and galleries; advisors; compensation costs for some deans and more.

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The University of Michigan-Flint campus saw the largest percentage increase. Its spending for academic support went up by 48 percent, increasing from $10.6 million in 2010-11 to $15.7 million in 2014-15.

Central Michigan University also saw spending in this category jump 41 percent, increasing from $31.3 million in 2010-11 to $43.9 million in 2014-15. The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor spent the most on academic support in dollar terms in 2014-15, $234.2 million, a 16 percent increase from four years earlier.

Michigan State University also saw a 30 percent increase, going from $130.4 million in 2010-11 to $169.9 million four years later.

Wayne State University was the only state university that did not increase spending in this category over the four-year period covered.

“University costs are going to continue to increase until tuition costs scare away students from attending,” said James Hohman, the assistant director of fiscal policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Yet the universities are not spending much more on faculty — instead, they’ve beefed up administration and other costs that support the university and its students.”

This is hardly a new problem. A 2003 House Fiscal Agency report on 25 years of higher education costs documented a rising number of noninstructional personnel for each student. The report noted the “development of what is called an administrative ‘lattice.'" It concluded, “Cost efficiencies frequently require revision or dismantling of the ‘lattice.’”

Note: The dollar figures in this story were not adjusted for inflation.

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