A Quick Bit of Math
A few days ago, in the midst of trying to perform some budgetary alchemy, I found myself wondering about the budget at my alma mater. I know it’s a different sector of higher ed, but students are students. How much, I wondered, is the disparity?
Naturally, I turned to the interwebs.
A quick search turned up this page from the Provost’s office of Williams College. It covers 2018-9, but I think that’s close enough to get the general idea. It opens by noting that “Last year, we invested $115,000 in each of our students.” The total was $238 million for slightly over 2,000 students. Lest we think that excessive, though, it goes on to note that the non-labor part of the budget remains lower than it was ten years ago. It’s 24 percent of the budget, which comes out to roughly $27,600 per student.
Brookdale’s budget for the year is about $81 million. It currently has 10,438 students. That comes out to just over $7760 per student. Put differently, the amount spent on one Williams student equals the amount spent on 14.8 Brookdale students.
That seems a bit much. Having met students from both, I don’t think a Williams student is worth nearly fifteen Brookdale students.
To be fair, the Williams figure includes dorms, which we don’t have. If we assume that dorms and related costs are, say, 30 percent of the total — a guess, but roll with it — then the amount spent on directly comparable things is $80,500 per student, as opposed to our $7760. That’s still over 10 to 1.
The provost makes the point that at an annual tuition of $70,000, Williams charges about $45,000 less than the cost of production, even for full-pay students. We also charge less than the cost of production. Tuition and fees add up to slightly over half of our operating budget. Both institutions are nonprofit. At that level, some comparison seems fair.
This isn’t about Williams specifically. As a grad myself, if I wanted to beat up on a small New England liberal arts college, I’d beat up on Amherst. (It’s what we do.) And at least Williams had the decency to reduce tuition when it went to remote instruction, unlike some places (cough UVA cough).
It’s about the scandalous, sustained, and generally accepted underfunding of community colleges. When I see disparities like these, I don’t want to hear another hand-wringing invocation of the need to tighten belts. We don’t have a spending problem; if anything, we’re parsimonious to a fault. (Just ask the adjuncts!) We have a revenue problem, and at its core, that’s a political problem.
At a basic level, we’ve decided as a society that some students are fifteen times more worthy of support than others. (And that’s without even counting the value of the tax exemption of the endowment!) They’re not. Williams students are lovely people, but are they fifteen times lovelier than students here?
Austerity does not occur in nature. It’s a political choice, and one that we keep making without even realizing it. The scandal isn’t even the ratio itself. It’s that we accept it as normal.
I’ve been in both worlds, and got my hand stamped. Don’t try to tell me that one set of students is fifteen times worthier than the other. Community college students, and the colleges that serve them, deserve better than that.