In praise of ‘non-instructional’ spending

From IT to student support services to marketing, there’s value in investing outside of the classroom — for both institutions and students alike.

As college costs and mounting student debt continue to play a starring role in national policy debates, a growing number of resources have emerged to help calculate the “bang for their tuition

Tonio Desorrento is CEO of Vemo Education.
Tonio Desorrento is CEO of Vemo Education.

buck.” These tools, like the one updated regularly by the Century Foundation, typically focus on how much of each student’s tuition gets put toward instructional spending. And along with stories about climbing walls and lazy rivers, this resource and others have become a standard measure for the excesses of college spending.

But while spending on instruction is undoubtedly a measure of educational quality, non-instructional spending gets too bad a rap. From IT to student support services to marketing, there’s value in investing outside of the classroom — for both institutions and students alike.

Take marketing and recruitment spend, for example, which have notoriously bad reputations. A significant portion of that money goes to communicating what differentiates institutions: their missions, support services, and academic outcomes, financial aid resources and overall approach to affordability, and their connections to employers. In short, all the things that go into helping students understand fit and value.

And there’s increasing evidence that helping students make the right choice about where to attend has an enormous impact on their longer-term success. The majority of students who stop out of college do so before their sophomore year — and the majority of borrowers who default on loans have less than $5,000 in debt. Many of those students might have stayed in college if they’d attended an institution that was a better match for their needs and goals.

For example, undermatching — where a student attends a less-selective institution than they could get into — significantly reduces a student’s odds of staying in college and graduating, and low-income students and students of color are especially likely to undermatch. But research has shown that campaigns to provide students with better information and counseling can greatly reduce the odds that students undermatch. Is that not marketing money well spent?

And the benefits of non-instructional spending are much more widespread. Spending on the IT infrastructure is driven by the need to deliver a modern learning experience, especially with the majority of instruction partly or entirely online for the foreseeable future. Data analytics staff and tools, both of which can be costly, are dedicated to understanding what makes students successful and what institutions can do better. And student support services, such as coaching and academic and career counseling, are critical to the learning experience and to students’ long-term success, as are mental and physical health services.

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Even before Covid-19, a growing number of undergraduates were struggling with food and housing insecurity, financial challenges, safety concerns, and mental health challenges. InsideTrack, a nonprofit providing coaching and support services, reports that the number of students receiving crisis support has been rising rapidly — shooting up 218% between 2019 to 2020. And recent research confirms that the pandemic is only heightening emotional distress and other crises. In fact, faculty across the country say their top concern for students this fall is their ability to preserve their mental health and wellness.

Beyond mental health counseling and crisis support, emergency aid programs aim to address many pressing personal needs that impact students’ studies. Those emergency aid programs provide small grants to cover non-tuition costs, like money to pay for unexpected childcare or a blown tire, that can prevent a student from making it to class and ultimately derail their education. They grew in popularity over the past decade, following a series of highly successful efforts funded by the Lumina Foundation and others. But, as research from NASPA has shown, as the aid programs spread, foundation money didn’t always follow — leading more and more colleges and universities to begin funding them with institutional money.

The need for these kinds of student supports will only increase if we see more adults, newly out of work, turning to higher education to retrain and re-enter the workforce. So too will the demand for networking opportunities and other career services as students and alumni alike try to navigate a turbulent job market. Those services provide real value — with more than 8 in 10 first-year students saying they enrolled in order to get a “better job.” But they also require staff and money that don’t count toward the instructional bottom line.

The list of such things could go on and on. But the point is this: We miss the mark when we ciritize non-instructional spending in the name of controlling costs. When deployed well, they can make the difference between a student graduating or not. And ultimately that’s the point — not just to be taught, but to leave college with a credential that sets you up for a great career.

If your institution isn’t spending much outside of instruction, you shouldn’t cheer. You should ask why not.

Tonio Desorrento is CEO of Vemo Education.

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