Sometimes the quality of a university transcends the numbers, higher education experts say.
Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education, a leading weekly publication on college and university affairs, published a report measuring numerous statistics for more than 3,800 universities across the United States. The University received mixed reviews, ranking at the third highest six-year graduation rate of any leading public institution at 89.7 percent, but with the highest cost per undergraduate degree in the state at $129,206.
The report also noted that the University had the lowest number of Pell Grants per capita in Michigan with 15 percent of students receiving the federal financial aid. The school with the highest number of Pell Grant recipients in the state was Wayne State University, with 43.5 percent of its student body benefiting from the program.
In a statement to The Michigan Daily, University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham wrote that an analysis of the Chronicle’s report performed by Donald Grimes, senior research area specialist at the University’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy, found issues with the group’s methodology.
“Professor Grimes notes that the basic calculation of cost is misleading for any university with graduate programs,” Cunningham wrote. “It’s especially misleading for major research universities, such as the University of Michigan, that have a full range of graduate and professional educational programs.”
Cunningham wrote that one of the major reasons the University’s costs are higher than peer institutions is the cost of graduate programs, which were not differentiated by the Chronicle during its analysis.
“The total cost of educational services (the numerator) includes spending for undergraduates, graduate degrees, post-master’s certificates, and all doctorates,” Cunningham wrote. “The graduation data (the denominator) includes only the number of undergraduate degrees granted. This calculation will naturally lead to a higher ‘cost of degree’ calculation for any school with a significant number of graduate and professional programs.”
Michael Van Beek, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a non-profit organization in Midland, Mich., said the University compared favorably on a national scale to peer institutions, but still faced strong competition. Van Beek cited the University of California, Berkley’s higher graduation rate, at about 91 percent, and that it spent significantly less than the University for each degree.
“That’s really the important question,” Van Beek said. “To get an 89 percent graduation rate for six years, does it require $130,000 per completion?”
In general, Van Beek said smaller schools are often more effective at limiting costs than larger public institutions because of their ability to specialize in certain areas. He cited the liberal arts program at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia as a model of specialization, but one that isn’t easily comparable to the University.
“The cost to provide everything for all people certainly would expand what the University would need to spend to do those things,” Van Beek said. “A school that is more specialized … that is focused on liberal arts or a certain strength in one area may have the ability to spend less with that focus, and maybe it’s because they are able to attract students who would excel in that area.”
Van Beek said the data indicated no significant differences between the funding and efficiency between public and private institutions in Michigan.
“On the whole, if you looked at Michigan, at the private colleges, they have slightly higher graduation rates overall for a four-year period, (but) their spending varies more and it is lower on average,” Van Beek said.
On a national scale, costs at leading private institutions were much higher than at the University. Yale University had the highest spending per completion at $502,748, followed by Wake Forest University at $417,946.
Michigan State University had the second highest six-year graduation rate in Michigan at 77.2 percent and the fourth highest spending per completion at $75,738.
Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at MSU, was not familiar with the data, but cautioned against drawing conclusions based on graduation rates and costs alone. The most important quality, according to Heller, is the preparedness of the student entering college in determining whether or not he or she will graduate.
“I’d be very cautious about inferring causality,” Heller said. “The reason for that is that the institutions that spend more money are the wealthy institutions which tend to be the more selective and attract better students. We know that the most important factor that determines whether a student graduates from college or how quickly they graduate from college is their own background and characteristics.”
Heller said it wasn’t particularly useful to compare large institutions such as the University of Michigan or MSU to other smaller Michigan schools because they have different focuses and sizes. He added that research institutions across the board have higher costs than institutions without a significant research component.
“It makes very little comparison (sense) to compare U-M Ann Arbor to Eastern Michigan University, for example,” Heller said. “It’s a much more valid comparison to compare (the University of Michigan and Michigan State University) to other research universities around the country.”