Trustees | Trusteeship

ACTA’s HowCollegesSpendMoney: A New, Advanced Tool for Accountability

FORBES   |  February 14, 2019 by Michael T. Nietzel

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has launched a new web-based tool that makes it easier to track and compare college expenditures. It’s called HowCollegesSpendMoney, and it promises to be an invaluable, user-friendly, source of information that will allow higher education leaders, students and policymakers to evaluate and compare institutions’ performance on financial matters as well as to examine the relationship of spending to student outcomes.

The site’s data are derived from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, but they are presented in a much more accessible format that allows users to compare selected colleges with other institutions based on their Carnegie classification, athletic conference, membership in a given higher education organization or location. A major feature is that users can construct their own unique comparison groups and generate relevant reports. The site provides access to eight years (currently, 2009-2016) of financial trends and spending patterns as well as student retention and graduation rates from approximately 1,500 private and public four-year institutions.

Included in the basic data are undergraduate enrollment, in-state and out-of-state tuition costs, retention rate, four-year (not six, which is the more common metric) graduation rate, the number of undergraduates receiving financial aid and the average amount of aid received. Even more useful are the various ratios that are presented: administrative costs per student, instructional costs per student, and the ratio of administrative to instructional costs. Tuition rates are adjusted for inflation, and they are also displayed as a percentage of a state’s median household income.

For example, assume you are interested in how much the University of Iowa spends per undergraduate on direct instruction and academic support compared to other universities in the Big Ten or the Association of American Universities. With just a few clicks you are in business. Or you can build your own comparison – for example, contrasting the University of Iowa with all the private colleges in Iowa on any of the ratios of interest.

“ is designed to equip college trustees and leaders to be more effective stewards of their institutions,” says Michael Poliakoff, ACTA president. “For the first time, they can easily arm themselves with critical data to make informed decisions about college spending in the best interests of their students – and the public.”

Formed in 1995, ACTA has been a champion of higher education accountability, with a particular focus on strengthening the oversight role of university trustees, safeguarding academic freedom, and advocating for a more rigorous general education “core curriculum.” It has published several reports on higher education in various states and has often been a critic of the higher education establishment over topics such as grade inflation, excessive spending on athletics, campus speech codes, and accreditation deficiencies.

Periodically controversial in higher education circles, where it is viewed by some with suspicion because of its occasional association with politically conservative causes, ACTA’s biggest sin in the eyes of many college leaders is that it believes that non-academics actually have the right to comment on and make recommendations concerning academic matters.

Well… good for ACTA. If higher education cannot tolerate and respond to an informed public’s scrutiny of its finances, curricula, and student outcomes, then it forfeits a good deal of its credibility and claims of legitimacy. Colleges and universities should not treat transparency as an enemy, even when they dislike its origins. is a worthy addition to the empirical study of collegiate finances and educational outcomes. Along with similar resources on college spending, it offers policymakers, trustees, college administrators and faculty, and students and their families an excellent way to assess institutions’ real priorities and accomplishments.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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