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Research and Tuition Hikes Not Connected

December 1997

The presence of research on campus is not responsible for tuition increases in institutions of higher education, according to a recent study done by NSF's Division of Science Resources Studies (SRS). Instead, the study says, common dynamics are responsible for ongoing tuition hikes. Published in a recent Issue Brief, the study found that these forces don't differentiate between colleges that offer research and those that do not.

NSF investigated this issue in response to tuition hikes that have occurred across the nation in the last 15 years. Between 1980 and 1994, tuition and fees increased 225%. In contrast, the median household income increased only 82% and the Consumer Price Index increased by 74%.

The drastic tuition increases have "given rise to suggestions that revenue from undergraduate tuition is used to subsidize activities, research among them, not directly related to undergraduate instruction," explains Rolf F. Lehming, Issue Brief author and science resources analyst.

To determine whether a correlation exists, Lehming examined the financial profiles of 1,339 universities with widely differing levels of research activity. He found that the relative increases in tuition were nearly identical, not only between institutions with high and low research intensity, but also between public and private institutions.

Lehming notes, however, that tuition starts out higher at research universities than at their non-research counterparts. These ratios remained the same over the course of the 15 years studied, indicating that all institutions, research-based or not, have been affected at similar rates by outside factors.

Lehming discusses some speculation of what could be driving the tuition hikes. The increases might be attributed to a basic conformity principal. "It might be argued that, as growing research costs prompt research universities to increase their tuition charges, the other types of institutions follow suit; i.e., that increasing research costs in some institutions help drive up tuition in all of them," explains Lehming.

Conversely, he suggests that educational processes might be driving up costs for both.

Without a uniform accounting structure or national university database, Lehming cannot make a definitive statement about cause and effect. "Both arguments are consistent with data ... but which might be right, if either, cannot be determined with confidence."

What is clear, however, is that the factors driving up the cost of higher education do not discriminate. States Lehming, "The nearly identical tuition increases by all types of institutions would appear to argue against research costs driving up the cost of tuition."

For a copy of the Issue Brief, call (301) 947-2722, or visit NSF's Web site: http:// www.nsf.gov.

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