Belt Loops: College Is Expensive, But Why?

Frank Solich is the highest-paid coach in the MAC, but our schools find lots of things to spend money on while raising tuition sky-high. - Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Turns out there's a lot of stuff MAC schools spend money on willy-nilly while raising tuition ever higher.

You may have heard the rather interesting news that Miami is the most expensive public school in the country for in-state students, as ranked by total cost of attendance. (The study's authors appear to have taken the university's listed all-in costs for in-state students, which include books, meals, etc., then subtracted the average financial aid package given to in-state students.)

Miami beat out the top Pennsylvania schools -- Penn State, Pitt, and Temple are unique in Pennsylvania for their freedom from state control and corresponding lack of state funding. It also topped a few other notable names, including #9 Ohio State.

But as anyone who's been paying down student loans can tell you, tuition is going up all over. Many people, not unjustifiably, point to athletic spending as a source for tuition increases. This is especially a common argument at MAC schools, where large portions of athletic budgets are funded through increases in student fees.

As expensive as it may be to field a competitive Division I athletic department, though, there are plenty of questionable expenses all around the college world, including at MAC schools. Here's a collection of ones that caught my eye, presented in alphabetical order. (Note: not all schools had something I considered significant enough to mention.)

  • Ball State was the victim of a $13 million fraud scheme involving university investments. The fraud at issue took place in 2008 and 2010, but was only recently revealed. Now it's certainly true that one of BSU's own employees stealing that money absolves the school of some blame, but check this out: according to the linked article, the school repeatedly and knowingly allowed the employee to violate its own internal policies that were designed to prevent exactly what she did.
  • Bowling Green is spending $30 million to build a "Greek housing village." The school claims that the current fraternity and sorority houses are too unsafe for occupancy and too expensive for renovation, so new ones need to be built. But why is the school (and its non-Greek student population) footing the bill here? I was in a fraternity; the house was owned by a corporation that was in turn controlled by chapter alumni. If the place needed to be replaced, it would be the corporation paying for it through a combination of alumni donations and increased rent to current members, not the entire student body.
  • Buffalo most likely paid Hillary Clinton $200,000 for a single speech. (The school refuses to admit the exact amount, but the linked article notes her usual fee is a minimum of $200,000.) Leave aside your personal politics or feelings about Hillary Clinton. Buffalo's in-state tuition is $6,170 per year. That means about 33 students' entire tuition went to pay for what was likely a 30-minute speech. A year's tuition a minute!
  • Miami has put the finishing touches on a new student center that cost $53.1 million. Was the old Shriver Center past its expiration date? Probably. Did the new center need to cost $53.1 million, including a $12,000 fee to re-upholster chairs that were already finished so they would achieve the "Miami appearance," or whatever they spent to make what appears to be a Miami-themed Johnny Rockets ripoff? Probably not. Oh, and that brand-spanking-new student center they just opened? Well, they're already building a $21.7 million addition that will open in 2017.
  • Ohio actually has a good thing to spend money on: maintenance and upkeep of the university's physical plant. And they're moving forward with taking out a $250 million bond to pay for it. Why do they need that large a bond to pay for maintenance costs? Because, according to a university report, they're on track to have one billion dollars in maintenance backlog costs by 2020. What the heck have they been spending the money on instead of clearing a potential billion-dollar backlog in campus maintenance? (Obviously not MAC football titles. Count it!)
  • Toledo's president, Lloyd Jacobs, is stepping down from the job. He'll take a year's sabbatical and then return to UT as a regular professor. Even though he's leaving, they're paying him a total of $1.3 million over the next three years. In addition to making his presidential salary rather than a regular faculty salary despite being regular faculty, he'll be allowed to live in the president's residence for the next year despite not being president, and Toledo will give him the use of a university-owned car. All this despite no one knowing why he left, which has led to speculation that there's some sort of hush-hush going on.

Now, before you all jump down my throat in the comments about how chunks of this spending (maybe all of it, in some cases) comes from private donors, consider this: with tuition rising every year faster than inflation, why are our schools going out and raising money for palatial, part-private-funded student centers or new fraternity housing instead of trying to raise $50 million to fund scholarships or other financial aid? EMU actually got that part right, more than doubling the amount of financial aid it gives out over the past seven years. If only others followed suit.

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