Choice of Measures Influences Data on Support for Flagship Universities

March 16, 2011

State financial support for public flagship universities looks quite different depending on how it's measured, and that can make it difficult to draw firm conclusions about which institutions receive the most from their states.

Take, for example, the University of Washington. It appeared this week in a Chronicle data table as receiving $19,575 per student in "educational appropriations" from the state in 2008, the second-highest total among 50 major public research institutions. That figure—calculated by the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability—represented the total cost of educational and related activities not covered by tuition revenue. Many public flagships have modest endowments and so rely largely on state appropriations to finance this subsidy for education. (The Chronicle has relabeled this column of figures to accurately describe the figure this way.)

But not at Washington: There, total appropriations per student—$9,797 per student in 2008—represented only about half of its subsidy for education spending. In Washington's case, the remaining portion of the subsidy came from other institutional sources, like investment and gift income. This remainder represents "state" support for education only in the sense that Washington is a public institution.

The education subsidy reported for other flagships may include some of this nontax money as well, but it's difficult to tell how much. Comprehensive data don't exist breaking down for each flagship the portion of the educational subsidy that came from state appropriations versus those other sources. One can only say that, at many flagships, the figure for all state appropriations per student matches or exceeds the educational subsidy.

Overall state appropriations per student might seem like a clearer way to directly measure legislative support for flagship institutions, which report those figures to the U.S. Education Department annually. And by this measure, the University of Washington certainly seems less flush than many of its peers—it ranks 28th among the 50 flagships.

However, this measure has drawbacks in that some of the money supports noneducational activities like athletics, student financial aid, and some research costs, and institutions vary in how much they spend in those areas. That's why Jane V. Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project, says it can be misleading to compare universities on this measure. Instead, the Delta Project emphasizes the educational-spending subsidy because education is a core mission of universities and the figure is comparable across institutions—although the subsidy figure is not necessarily financed solely by state appropriations at all flagships.

Regardless of which figure one uses, total appropriations or educational subsidy, the amount per student declined from 2003 to 2008 at most of the 50 flagship institutions examined by The Chronicle. And those figures are likely to have declined further because of reductions in appropriations for higher education by many state legislatures since 2008, when the recession started.