Sending a child to college is a hefty investment for parents, who often find themselves examining costs and aid packages as much as educational options.
The true cost of a private college education can vary widely, and local colleges expend between $25,000 and $71,000 per student per year. And contrary to what many think, the cost to run a public university can be just as high as running a private one.
The total amount colleges spend — not the tuition and fees students pay, but the institution’s operating budget — differs widely because of varying sizes. For example, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s operating budget in 2010-11, the most recent year for which data is available, was $489 million, while the budget for The Sage Colleges, a much smaller institution, came in at a fraction of that at $67 million.
The Cost of College
College Total expenses Enrollment* Cost per student Student cost
RPI $489 million 6,888 $71,000 $59,470
Union $144 million 2,162 $67,000 $56,289
Skidmore $169 million 2,892 $58,000 $48,800
UAlbany $764 million 15,471 $49,000 $17,500
Siena $128 million 3,267 $39,000 $42,000
Sage $67 million 2,419 $27,000 $37,000
Saint Rose $111 million 4,417 $25,000 $37,800
* Full-time equivalent
Source: IRS Form 990 for each private institution, Guidestar.org. Enrollments and UAlbany data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. All numbers are for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Cost to students is from individual college data and reflects tuition, fees, room and board.
RPI in Troy is also the region’s biggest spender when comparing institutions’ expenses per student.
The cost is a little over $71,000 per full-time-equivalent student, according to expense figures the college provided to the Internal Revenue Service in its Form 990 for 2010-11.
That cost includes salaries and benefits, building costs, food service, equipment, scholarships, and other expenses such as traveling and lobbying.
RPI also gives the most financial aid to students, at $134 million in grants a year, or an average of more than $19,000 per student. Union College gives an average of $16,800 a year in grants and Skidmore College grants an average of $11,600 per student.
Union is the second-most-expensive local college when comparing operating expenses per student; in 2010-11 the college spent $144 million, or almost $67,000 per student.
Skidmore comes in third; its $169 million in spending works out to more than $58,000 per student.
Public colleges are also expensive to run.
The University at Albany, for instance, spent just over $49,000 per student in 2010-11; its operating budget, including state money, was $764 million and the school had the equivalent of 15,471 full-time students.
That figure, which college officials are quick to point out is bound to be an imperfect comparison because the reports for public and private institutions don’t use uniform information, puts SUNY Albany squarely in the middle of the pack for per-student spending among local colleges and universities.
“People think that private colleges spend all this money and state colleges don’t, but that’s not the case,” said Diane Blake, vice president of finance and administration for Union College. Tuition is lower because of state support, but public institutions usually pay their employees about the same salaries as private ones do.
SUNY Albany even pays its workers more on average than the local private colleges.
According to data the university provided to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS, the salary average was $98,525 for that year, higher than any local private school except for RPI, which paid an average of $101,095 in 2010-11.
How colleges spend their money usually reflects their values and strategy in everything from their student-faculty ratio to how often they freshen up old buildings, college finance officials say.
“It’s very easy to paint every college with the same brush and assume that they’re all doing the same thing,” Blake said. But they’re not, and the spending shows it.
“It explains why we’re all in the marketplace, because there are different needs.”
Union spent $2.8 million on travel in 2010-11, the highest of any local private school besides RPI.
That’s by design, Blake said.
“We have a very robust term-abroad program,” she said. Almost half of juniors participate, going abroad for a trimester.
Blake said Union also sends faculty along, which accounts for a higher travel cost because many schools don’t send faculty with students studying abroad.
The college pays for the faculty members’ expenses and pays for the students’ housing while they’re abroad.
The $2.8 million also includes Minerva Fellowships given to eight or nine students a year who do an international fellowship right after graduating, then come back to Union to share their experience with current students.
Skidmore emphasizes independent studies programs, which are expensive, said Michael West, vice president for finance, administration and treasurer.
And RPI’s higher spending pays off for its graduates, who fetch high salaries as they start out in the workforce, said spokesman Mark Marchand.
“Rensselaer invests what is necessary to attract and retain the best faculty from across the U.S. and abroad,” he said in a statement. “These faculty members — many of whom are leaders in their fields — provide excellent instruction for undergraduate and graduate students, while conducting the type of scholarly research that helps to solve global challenges and attracts some $100 million in research funding annually to Rensselaer, adding to the economy of the region.”
Schools where most students live on campus also will pay more, since more residents means more buildings and more employees servicing those buildings.
That’s part of the reason that The Sage Colleges, which include Russell Sage College in Troy, Sage College of Albany and Sage Graduate Schools, spend just over $27,000 per full-time-equivalent student. Just 55 percent of its undergraduates live in campus housing, and almost none of its graduate students do.
At Skidmore College, by contrast, more than 95 percent of students live in campus housing.
Sage officials view their lower spending compared to other local institutions as a good thing.
“Sage heretofore was not living within its means,” said Peter Hughes, vice president of finance and administration.
Before 2008 when current college President Susan Scrimshaw came to Sage, the college had spent several years with budgets in the red. Now, budgets are balanced and the college has worked to clear up debts, Hughes said.
“We run a very tight budget and we adjust as we need to to make sure that we are better than break-even,” he said. “We try to push every nickel we can into human capital.”
Siena College, with its Franciscan foundation, also prides itself on efficiency, said Paul Stec, vice president for finance.
The friars who work for the college, including the president, the Rev. Kevin Mullen, don’t take a salary, in keeping with their vow of poverty. Thirteen friars currently hold active positions in the college, Stec said.
“That’s still an essential part of who we are.”
Siena College spent $39,000 per student out of an operating budget of $128 million.
The school also has less spending money at its disposal because its endowment was $102 million at the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year, less than some of the other local private colleges.
“The spin-off income from the endowment is going to have some impact on what goes out the door as well,” Stec said.
By contrast, RPI’s endowment was $708 million at the end of that year; Skidmore’s was $301 million and Union’s was $328 million.