University of Minnesota calculates the full cost of educating a student

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2012 - 8:48 AM

Cost varies by college, campus and level of study - in surprising ways.

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Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Leaders of the University of Minnesota got answers Thursday to a question they've been posing for years: How much does it cost to educate a student?

The short answer: $12,055 in 2009-10, on average, for an undergraduate. But the full cost of instruction -- including everything from faculty salaries to electricity -- varies by college, campus and level of study. For undergrads, tuition rarely covered the full cost.

The new analysis is the most precise accounting the university has ever done and will fuel debate between the Board of Regents and President Eric Kaler about where and how to become more efficient as state funding falls. Kaler called the new data "absolutely critical."

"If we can't measure things," he said, "we can't be sure we're changing them."

At board meetings Thursday, U leaders warned that it will be impossible to compare the new numbers with those from other universities. But over time, they will help spot trends in direct and indirect costs of instruction, as well as research and public service.

On the Twin Cities campus, the most expensive undergraduate degree to provide is in the Carlson School of Management: $16,049. The least expensive is in the College of Education and Human Development: $9,625. Those in charge of the analysis were surprised by the relatively low cost of the College of Science and Engineering, with its many labs: $10,721.

There, courses are set, with a predictable number of students. "The curriculum is a little more lockstep," said Lincoln Kallsen, director of financial research.

Other variables include faculty salaries, cost of equipment and how many courses are taught by teaching assistants.

Best face-value deal: Morris

Julie Tonneson, associate vice president for budget and finance, warned against judging variations outright. "We are not saying high or low is good or bad," she said.

A student's best value -- where the cost of instruction is greatest compared to tuition -- is at Morris, the U's campus in western Minnesota. It cost $16,273 to educate a student there in 2009-10, compared to tuition of $10,030. U leaders attributed the higher cost to the liberal arts mission, student-to-faculty ratio and small student population.

Graduate students cost an average of $23,454 and professional students, including those in medical, law and dentistry, cost $39,022.

The total cost of instruction at the University of Minnesota in 2009-10 was $1.1 billion -- $668.1 in direct costs such as salaries and supplies and $453.5 million in indirect costs such as a share of the President's Office and facilities. The total cost of research was $870.8 million.

A rare look at research

Grants and contracts that fund the university's "sponsored research" don't fully cover the cost of doing that research, the numbers show. About 89 percent of the direct and indirect costs are covered by grants, contracts and the funding they provide for research's indirect costs. Another 9 percent comes from state funds. Clinical income and other revenue make up the last, tiny slice.

The university, federal government and media pay most attention to the total amount of research sponsored through grants and contracts by federal agencies, private industry and foundations.

But this analysis gives an unprecedented look at non-sponsored research.

Direct and indirect spending on such research totaled $339.6 million in 2010 -- compared with $531.2 million for sponsored research. State funding pays for a bigger chunk of that non-sponsored research -- 59 percent in general funding and 10 percent from funding intended for specific projects.

Those "state specials" don't pay for the indirect costs, Tonneson said, and don't even cover the full direct costs.

Tonneson said she was surprised by the amount of non-sponsored research the university does. Until now, she said, "it's not something we've tracked in this way."

Redefining U jobs

The presentation about costs followed another about the U's plan to redefine employee groups.

Last year, the board debated an internal report that showed a 52 percent increase in the number of jobs labeled "administrative." The report showed 2,157 full-time administrative positions, up by 742 since 2001. Meanwhile, total employment at the U grew less than 11 percent.

But university leaders argue that "professional and administrative" definition is outdated, unreliable and imprecise. They have proposed seven new job categories -- including "direct academic providers," "organizational support," and "university leadership."

Several of those categories need "a deeper dive," Kathy Brown, vice president for human resources, told regents Thursday. For example, someone might be labeled a manager but might not be supervising anyone.

Regent Laura Brod said she was concerned that the new categories don't use the word "administration."

"One of the goals was to define what administration is so that we can then define how much we spend on it," she said.

Brown and Kaler promised that deeper analysis is coming. They also pointed to numbers that show the university is educating more students, granting more degrees and doing more sponsored research per employee now than it did in 2003.

"I have been, frankly, tired of the charges that we don't do things efficiently, that we are fat and bloated," Kaler said. Even in this project's "early stages," he said, "you will see... remarkable productivity."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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