Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Clemson: Why Spending Does Not Equal Quality

by Luke Myers

This past Monday, the Greenville News website ran an article reporting the increasing expenditures and tuition of South Carolina’s public universities. They reported that Clemson University has more than doubled its spending since 1998. This past year, it increased its expenditures by 10 percent, over double the expected inflation. And where does the money come from? Well, the 5.5%increase in students’ tuition for the next academic year will certainly help cover the bills.

What is Clemson buying that makes such an increase in spending necessary? The president of Clemson University, James Barker, implied that the increase in tuition will help them reach their goal of a place in the top 20 of the nation’s public universities. Currently, the university stands 27th among public universities in the U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) “Best Colleges” ranking. According to Barker, Clemson will “maintain focus” on accomplishing its goal as it pockets $10.9 million more of its students’ money next year.

In response, a Clemson student, Daniel Lewis, asked the necessary question: “Is the state really served by a Top 20 [USNWR] university and what it costs to get there?” Would a top twenty ranking in U.S. News mean that Clemson was producing superior graduates in South Carolina? Such a result is doubtful in light of the new rankings recently released by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), in partnership with Forbes.com. These rankings, which evaluate colleges based on the outcomes they produce, such as students’ postgraduate success and satisfaction with educational instruction, place Clemson at a mediocre 83rd out of 134 public national universities.

Some may now be wondering how a university that has made a commitment to becoming a “top-tier public university,” and increased its spending toward this end, could do so poorly in the new rankings. The answer is that they may be spending money where it will increase their U.S. News & World Report ranking, but they aren’t actually producing superior educational results.

Among CCAP’s 134 public national universities, Clemson is 95th in our measure of students’ postgraduate success and 99th in our measure of students’ satisfaction with their instructors. The students of Clemson win nationally competitive awards at a per-student rate that places them 86th in the field. And yet, even with these less-than-top-tier results, students continue to pay top-tier prices: 91 public national universities graduate their students with less average debt per borrower than Clemson University.

However, it is likely that increased spending will in fact help Clemson pursue a top twenty spot in USNWR. That’s because over half of the latter’s ranking system relies on input factors whose uses may not actually improve educational effectiveness. Clemson’s plan to use the tuition increases for faculty hiring will no doubt help boost their U.S. News ranking (which weighs faculty salaries, the number of instructors who have the highest degree in their field, and the percentage of full-time faculty) but will not in itself guarantee the improvement of or students’ satisfaction with professors.

In the USNWR list of all national universities (public and private), Clemson’s best rank is in “Alumni Giving,” where they stand 27th (their overall rank is 67 out of 130). However, while Clemson may be raking in donations at a great rate, there is no assurance that the donations actually improve educational outcomes of current students. It’s possible the strong giving rate is the result of pumping money into development rather than student services.

When viewed from the position of students and taxpayers, public universities shouldn’t be rewarded simply for paying their faculty more, being more selective about who they let in, or attracting bigger lumps of cash from their alumni. All of these inputs are important resources, but their mere existence does not guarantee that they will be put to uses that will actually improve educational quality. Comparing Clemson’s rank in the inputs-based USNWR system to its rank in the outputs-based CCAP system demonstrates this fact.

In light of the 5.5% tuition hike this fall and Clemson’s mediocre CCAP rank, one has to wonder what all this spending is accomplishing. Perhaps it is being used to purchase a spot closer to number 20 in this fall’s U.S. News & World Report public universities ranking. Maybe if they raise tuition a couple thousand dollars higher they will reach their goal.

Luke Myers is a research assistant at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and a senior political science major at Ohio University.

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