Cut student services? Think again

The painful art of cutting a college or university’s budget—often in an effort to protect core academic programs while choosing which support services to cut—may have become a little more difficult.

A forthcoming working paper by Cornell University graduate student Douglas Webber and Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, found that in some cases, graduation and persistence rates are related to higher spending on student services. Research findings show a higher positive correlation between graduation rates and spending on student services – including things like student organizations, additional educational tools, and health and education services. registration – only between graduation rates and teaching or research expenditures.

“The natural tendency is to protect core services, and what we’re seeing is that in some institutions support services might be just as important,” Ehrenberg said.

The report states that all other things being equal, “an increase in student services spending of $500 per student, on average, would increase an institution’s six-year graduation rate by 0.7 percentage points.” Similar increases in teaching spending and spending on academic support services would increase the average graduation rate by about 0.3 percentage points, while an increase in budgeted research spending by the same amount would decrease the rate. graduation rate by 0.7 percentage points.

The report also found that spending on student services increased graduation rates more for schools with lower average test scores and more students receiving Pell Grants. “In other words,” the report reads, “their effects are greatest at institutions that currently have lower first-year graduation and retention rates.”

“What this may say is that for the schools that currently have lower entrance test scores and a lot of Pell grants, these are the schools where support services are most important and there are none maybe not enough,” Ehrenberg said. “What happens is intuitively what you think might happen. These student services are most important for those who might be most at risk.”

Webber and Ehrenberg did a version of the study that may be more realistic in a struggling economy, in which subtracting $500 per student from “institutional expenses” and reallocating it to student services further increased the graduation rate by 0 .3%.

On the outcome, the report reads: “This finding is one that neither the nation’s faculty are concerned about declining funding for faculty positions, nor higher education critics who point to the wasteful growth expenditure for non-pedagogical purposes. But our key words are “on average”. What is true on average is not necessarily true for all categories of institutions.”

These findings, according to Ehrenberg, are the first of their kind, primarily due to access to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System made possible by the Delta Project on Teaching Costs, Productivity, and Accountability. post-secondary. This made it possible to use information on 1,160 four-year establishments nationwide.

Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said the report confirmed a trend already widely known in higher education. “I think that’s the kind of discovery you’d expect, that for first-generation students, the kind of services that they would need to help them stay in school, that’s much more important,” he said. he declared. “That’s something to keep in mind as colleges and universities have to cut back. These services help keep students in school.” Callan further emphasized the need to “build budgets around the needs of your students.”

Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said the report confirms everything student affairs administrators have been saying – that student services are an essential part of academic success. “The largest number of people entering classrooms are racial minorities and first-generation students, and they may not have the preparation,” Dungy said. “If we recognize that they need that support, we increase their success. Access isn’t just about getting in, it’s about perseverance and graduation. We know it makes a difference, and here’s now research.”

However, she does not consider this study alone to justify the investment of additional funds in student services. Rather, she said, the goal moving forward is to start a conversation in which student services and university services can collaborate on how best to support students at the University. inside and outside the classroom.

A chorus of others agree that now is not the time to find new places to invest funds, but rather to hold colleges and universities accountable for their spending. For example, a report released by the Delta Project in January states, “As an industry, higher education has still not made the transition from cost accounting to cost accounting…Despite many efforts to encourage voluntary adoption of common metrics, little progress has been made in translating cost data into information that can be used either to inform strategic decision-making or to show the public how institutions are spending their money .”

Another study by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity found that “colleges have generally increased staffing relative to enrollment and number of degrees awarded, particularly in the back office.” This has raised concerns that continuing to hire is creating “administrative bloat”.

Richard Vedder, who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, praised the work and methodologies of the Cornell researchers, but raised the issue of cost regarding the report’s findings. If you have 1,000 students with low SAT scores (a group whose investment of $500 per student would increase graduation rates by 1.7%, according to the report), national averages indicate that 550 will graduate. Raising the graduation rate by 1.7% would mean that 17 more students would graduate. Although he admitted it was a positive result, he said it would cost $2 million if the college invested $500 per student per year. “The elasticity of graduation rates to student services is quite low,” he said.

Instead, Vedder argued that the researchers should have made their finding that an investment of $500 per student in research lowers graduation rates by 0.7% more visible. “Schools that spend more on research may actually have negative effects,” he said, noting that those universities typically have lower average ratings on ratemyprofessors.com.

“It shows me that there are trade-offs,” he said. “[With research], you may be paying a cost in terms of student services to the point of lowering graduation rates. To the Cornells, it doesn’t matter, but to the State College of Last Resort, it does…I just put more emphasis on it than they do.”