Trends in College Spending


trendsincollegespendingThe Delta Cost Project recently released a report titled, “Trends in College Spending: Where Does the Money Come From? Where Does it Go?” The report is enlightening given the well-documented increases in college costs combined with the current financial crisis. 

The Forward to the report, written by Delta Cost Project’s Executive Director, Jane Wellman, notes that “Our country needs to increase capacity and improve performance in higher education.  We can’t allow the funding crisis to justify rollbacks in access or quality.”  The report utilizes the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data provided by all institutions of higher education to the U.S. Department of Education, but the authors admit that “private for-profit institutions, an important and growing sector in American higher education, are excluded from the fiscal analyses because of the poor quality of trend data for these institutions.” 

Between 2002 and 2006, “overall postsecondary enrollments increased by more than 1.6 million students,” representing “the greatest five-year growth since the baby boomers headed to college.”  With such significant increases in college enrollments, the information about college costs contained in the report should be able to illuminate whether or not the incremental enrollments were folded into the system at a fully loaded cost per student or an incremental cost.  The report notes that it did not prepare fiscal analyses of the private, for-profit sector (of which APUS is included) despite the fact that this sector and public community colleges have seen the largest enrollment increases during the period under review.

Non-profit colleges and universities receive funds from multiple sources including: tuition and fees, state and local appropriations, endowments, federal funds, private gifts, and bond revenues.  Depending on the type of institution (public or private), any specific university will receive funds from some but likely not all of the sources listed. 

The report notes that when considering the impact of tuition increases on consumers, it is important to understand how tuition received from students and their families are spent.  “Tuitions go up for two basic reasons: to pay for real increases in overall spending, or to substitute for revenue declines elsewhere in an institution’s budget” according to the report.  The latter reason for a tuition increase is known as “cost shifting.”  Cost shifting can be utilized as a budgeting strategy by public institutions when state and local appropriations dwindle.  The art of cost shifting is only possible in a market where the consumers are not price sensitive since the funds received from increased tuitions are not used to increase the quality of education received by students but are instead used to supplement dwindling funds available for other fund-generating elements of many public institutions, including hospitals and other services.  According to statistics provided by the Delta Cost Project, “about 92 percent of the increase in (public institutions’) student tuitions since 2002 can be attributed to shifts in revenue, while 8 percent went to actual increases in spending.”  In short, in cost shifting situations, the student pays more to attend the school but sees little return on his money since the funds are not used to increase the quality of education provided. 

As the report points out, what makes the current situation in college spending so interesting is that it seems to fly in the face of established business practices particularly in the technology arena, namely that of “providing service at a lower cost without reducing quality.”  Considering the financial crisis facing our nation and, in turn, individual students and their families, the report warns that if colleges and universities are to continue to attract students, they will be forced to reconsider their traditional attitudes toward spending.  The amount spent per student by institutions portrayed in this report is decreasing while increasing tuition funds are being used for items other than those related directly to increased access and the quality of education received.  In any open market, it is unlikely that a consumer would continue to pay increased prices while receiving a lower quality product or a product with no increased benefit or features. 

Higher education has only been able to get away with this unique situation defying normal market conditions because post World War II American college students and their parents have acknowledged the importance of a college education in securing a strong financial livelihood.  As the current financial crisis continues and students are forced to make college choices based increasingly on cost, higher education in general will likely be forced to reconsider non-ROI spending practices and cost shifting in order to continue to attract students or maintain enrollment levels.  The conclusion of “Trends in College Spending” sums up the situation nicely: “The trends documented in this report show that the incremental approach to budget balancing has put our nation on a path of disinvestment in core capacity in much of higher education – a pattern that is only revealed by looking at broad metrics that examine revenues in relation to spending, enrollments, and results.”  Speaking on behalf of an institution whose single source of revenue is tuition, it’s about time that more institutions are required to focus on spending on quality initiatives that improve student outcomes.  The student, or the consumer, should always benefit from tuition increases.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.



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