ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Getting What You Pay For? Executive Summary

April 2014

America’s great public universities were founded with the highest expectations of academic excellence and service to their states. For Thomas Jefferson and his fellow commissioners of the new University of Virginia, the purpose of the university was, among other public benefits, “To develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order; to enlighten them with mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts, and administer to the health, the subsistence, and comforts of human life; and, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.” The Texas Constitution of 1876 sought to: “. . . establish, organize and provide for the maintenance, support and direction of a university of the first class, to be located by a vote of the people of this State, and styled ‘The University of Texas,’ for the promotion of literature, and the arts and sciences, including an agricultural and mechanical department.” The mission and vision statements of the University of Illinois hold, “The University of Illinois is among the preeminent public universities of the nation and strives constantly to sustain and enhance its quality in teaching, research, public service and economic development. . . . The University of Illinois will transform lives and serve society by educating, creating knowledge and putting knowledge to work on a large scale and with excellence.”1

These are indeed the goals that the American public should expect from its leading public institutions. How well have these institutions held on to these important principles? Unfortunately, when we move from rhetoric to data, the reality is deeply troubling.

Overall, these institutions, often called the “flagship universities,” do a poor job of ensuring that undergraduate students engage in an intellectually vibrant campus culture and leave with a solid foundation of common skills and knowledge. Of seven key subject areas: Composition, Literature, intermediate-level Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural or Physical Science, 17 universities require two or less, and another 21 require only three of these crucial subjects. While almost two-thirds of these leading universities have at some point used a nationally-normed assessment of student progress in core collegiate skills, only one in four has taken the added step of making the results publicly available. Most of these prestigious institutions participate in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), but at those institutions that report frequency data concerning time-on-task, nearly half of the seniors do not complete a single extended, comprehensive writing assignment during the entirety of their senior year. On average, 34% of the seniors at research universities spend ten hours or less each week studying or doing homework, a figure corroborated by school-specific findings detailed in this report. Overall, throughout American higher education, over one-third of first-year students report spending more hours each week under the influence of alcohol than in preparing for class. In this study, for example, the University of Vermont and the University of California–Santa Cruz report 13.0 and 18.7 substance abuse-related incidents per 100 students, respectively. Finally, the free exchange of ideas, which is the lifeblood of academic excellence, is under threat at almost all of America’s flagship public institutions. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has given 21 of the universities “red light” warnings for substantial restrictions of free speech, and another 27 have received “yellow light” warnings for restrictions that jeopardize free expression.2

Not all schools have succumbed to the disturbing academic trends our report documents, making it clear that America’s great public universities can do better. The University of Georgia, for example, stands out among its peers with an “A” rating for its general education requirements. In addition to maintaining a strong core curriculum, with robust requirements for American history and government, the University of Texas was an early pioneer in the use of nationally-normed assessment of student growth in core collegiate skills.3

Cost is also a major issue. Between 1983 and the present, the “sticker price” of tuition and required fees at a public four-year university has risen 231% after adjusting for inflation. In the period 2008-13 alone, inflation-adjusted tuition and required fees at four-year public colleges increased 27%. In the most recent five-year period for which data are available (2007-12), the flagship institutions discussed in this report saw an average increase of 31% after adjusting for inflation. Students are the victims of these runaway prices, especially those from middle-class homes who do not qualify for major amounts of financial aid and are often forced to take on a crushing burden of student loans. Exacerbating the effects of rising tuition and fees is the low percentage of students who graduate from four-year universities on time—that is, in four years, rather than five, six, or more. At the 52 leading public institutions in this study, the average four-year graduation rate was 53.6%. This means, of course, lost opportunity costs and extra semesters of tuition bills.4

The United States outspends every other nation per pupil on higher education, spending nearly twice the average of other nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Yet, its graduation rates are below the OECD average. The costs borne by students are heavy. Contrary to a myth widely disseminated by higher education leaders, educational debt is only “good debt” for the colleges and universities that benefit from the tuition dollars that students have borrowed. Millions of Americans carry student debt well into middle age, causing them to delay home purchase and often marriage and family. The societal consequences are severe.5

For too long, many higher education leaders have blamed state funding cuts, and state funding cuts alone, for the steep and steady upward trend in tuition. This report will look at some other culprits: broken faculty reward systems that push teaching responsibilities ever downward, runaway executive salaries and administrative bloat, and the campus building boom that continues to add underutilized physical facilities. This report will call on campus administration to follow the example Frank Brogan set as chancellor of the State University System of Florida, when he articulated in the midst of serious state budget reductions:

During this period of fiscal constraint, we must continue to maximize the effective and efficient use of our resources and work with our partners in the Legislature to achieve the proper balance of revenue derived from appropriation and from tuition. We must also remain keenly aware that the economic pressures our students face are as real as the economic challenges our universities and the Legislature are experiencing.6

University of Georgia president Jere W. Morehead similarly observed: “We must never forget that our tuition and fees constitute a lot of money to students and families striving to realize the dream of achieving a UGA education. Keeping that dream available for as many as possible should be a priority for all of us.”7

Some universities have clearly resisted the trend to offset decreases in state funding with increases in tuition and fees. The University of Maryland has aggressively pursued cost-cutting measures, including a 10% system-wide increase in teaching productivity. And it shows: the in-state tuition has risen only 0.9% in the past five years. Both Florida State University and the University of Florida have had to deal with quite substantial reductions in state funding. In 2008- 09, the state contributed 68% of the funding for each full-time equivalent student in the state system, while in 2011-12 that contribution dropped to 55% and fell to 47% in 2012-13.

In specific terms, this means that between 2008-09 and 2012-13 per-student state funding at Florida State dropped from $8,975 to $5,033, and from $8,264 to $5,644 at the University of Florida. These institutions did increase their historically low tuitions ($4,566 and $4,373 in 2009), but they did not simply substitute tuition dollars for lost state funds. They made do with less, and at the same time increased their graduation rates and rose in the national rankings for research and development expenditures. The State University System of Florida now tracks and publishes data on “excess credit hours”: universities are held accountable for the percentages of students who take more than 120 semester hours to complete their degrees.8

Public higher education, including the most prestigious public universities, will need to make hard and judicious choices about priorities, and do it soon. Most of the top public universities have allowed runaway increases in athletic spending, often billed back to the students as mandatory student athletic fees or drawing resources away from other institutional needs. Many severely underutilize existing classroom space, yet keep on building new buildings. Few have followed the University of Maryland’s example and changed faculty expectations to encourage more and better teaching.

As recently as the summer of 2013, there was more bad news from the financial sector. Moody’s prediction for public universities was dour: “The developing trend of expense growth outpacing revenue growth is unsustainable.” The Chronicle of Higher Education summarized: “While figures for the flagship institutions were more positive, the data over all put public colleges on a path to economic oblivion.” These are serious warnings, and business visionary Clayton Christensen has predicted, “Fifteen years from now more than half of the universities will be in bankruptcy, including the state schools.”9

The data in this report suggest that for many schools, there is no time to lose. And, most important, students, their families, and taxpayers deserve a better, more cost-effective education. The institutions we evaluate in this report are listed below.

Auburn University
Clemson University
College of William & Mary
Colorado School of Mines
Florida State University
Georgia Institute of Technology
Indiana University
Iowa State University
Miami University
Michigan State University
North Carolina State University
Ohio State University
Pennsylvania State University
Purdue University
Rutgers University
SUNY–Stony Brook University
SUNY–Binghamton University
SUNY–College of Environmental Science & Forestry
Texas A&M University
University of Alabama
University of Tennessee
University of Texas
University of California–Berkeley
University of California–Davis
University of California–Irvine
University of California–Los Angeles
University of California–San Diego
University of California–Santa Barbara
University of California–Santa Cruz
University of Colorado
University of Connecticut
University of Delaware
University of Florida
University of Georgia
University of Illinois
University of Iowa
University of Kansas
University of Maryland
University of Massachusetts
University of Michigan
University of Minnesota
University of Missouri
University of Nebraska
University of New Hampshire
University of North Carolina
University of Oklahoma
University of Pittsburgh
University of Vermont
University of Virginia
University of Washington
University of Wisconsin
Virginia Polytechnic Institute

End Notes

  1. Thomas Jefferson, Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia (1818), <>; Tex. Const. art. VII, § 10, <>; “Mission and Values,” University of Illinois, accessed November 4, 2013, <>.
  2. "What Will They Learn? A Guide to What College Rankings Don’t Tell You,” American Council of Trustees and Alumni, accessed January 20, 2014, <>. Campus-specific data on time-on-task are from websites of institutions from which NSSE Frequency Distribution Reports were available, including: North Carolina State University, Purdue University, Rutgers University, University of Colorado, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts, University of Minnesota, University of North Carolina, University of Texas, University of Washington, University of Wisconsin, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute. National student engagement data are for students at institutions with Carnegie classification of “Research Universities (very high research activity).” Forty-two out of 52 institutions in this report fall in this category. Nine schools are categorized as “Research Universities (high research activity).” SUNY–College of Environmental Science & Forestry is classified as a “Doctoral/Research University.” See “Institution Lookup,” Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, accessed January 24, 2014, <>. Center for Postsecondary Research & Planning, National Survey of Student Engagement: NSSE 2013 U.S. Grad Frequencies; Seniors (2013), 7, question 7c, 13, question 15a, <>; “College Students Spend More Time Drinking Than Studying,” EverFi (Formerly Outside the Classroom), March 11, 2009, <>; Brandon Busteed, “What Are the Most Common Misconceptions about College- Age Drinking?,” Trusteeship Magazine, March/April 2009, <>; “Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool,” U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 22, 2013, <>. Substance-abuse related incidents are defined as the number of reported disciplinary actions and arrests on campus for the violation of drug or liquor laws. Enrollment is based on figures reported for the school’s main campus, except when schools reported enrollment aggregated across multiple campuses. In such cases, the average number of incidents per 100 students may actually be underreported. All figures given are based on a three-year average from 2010-2012. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education, The Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting (Washington, DC: 2011), <>; Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2013: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses (Philadelphia: 2013), < Codes_2013.pdf?direct>.
  3. Doug Lederman, “U. of California Catches Up on Accountability,” Inside Higher Ed, September 22, 2008, <>; Geri H. Malandra, “Creating a Higher Education Accountability System: the Texas Experience” (paper presented at the Program on Institutional Management in Higher Education General Conference, Paris, France, September 2008), 12, 15- 16, <>.
  4. The College Board Advocacy & Policy Center, Trends in College Pricing 2013 (New York, NY: The College Board, 2013), 14-15, <>.
  5. OECD, Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013), 63, Table A3.2, 175, Table B1.2, < 20%20June%20 2013.pdf>.; Josh Mitchell, “Student Debt Hits the Middle-Aged ,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2012, <>.; Sue Shellenbarger,“To Pay Off Loans, Grads Put Off Marriage, Children,” Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2012, <>; William J. Bennett, “The Looking Crisis of Student Loan Debt,” CNN, December 6, 2012, <>.
  6. Frank T. Brogan, Chancellor’s Update (Tallahassee, FL: State University System of Florida Board of Governors, 2011), <>.
  7. Jere W. Morehead, “The State of the University Address” (speech, Athens, GA, January 23, 2014).
  8. Jon Marcus, “How Maryland Universities Were Able to Cut Costs and Keep Tuitions Down,” The Hechinger Report, April 11, 2010, <>; “Effectiveness and Efficiency Initiative,” University System of Maryland, accessed November 5, 2013, <>; Florida Rising: An Assessment of Public Universities in the Sunshine State (Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2013), 1-2, 18, <>; 2012-2013 Annual Accountability Report (Tallahassee, 62 FL: State University System of Florida Board of Governors, 2014), 4, 11, < Summary_FINAL_2014-02-3.pdf>; Annual Accountability Report: Florida State University (Tallahassee, FL: State University System of Florida Board of Governors, 2013), 3, <>; Annual Accountability Report: University of Florida (Tallahassee, FL: State University System of Florida Board of Governors, 2013), 3, <>. Tuition data is taken from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator site, <>.
  9.  Eric Kelderman, “Moody’s Report Forecasts a Gloomy Future for Public Universities,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 14, 2013, <>; Cromwell Schubarth, “Disruption Guru Christensen: Why Apple, Tesla, VCs, Academia May Die,” Silicon Valley Business Journal, February 7, 2013, <>.