Counting Past Each Other: How Inconsistent Reporting Creates Confusion about Higher Education Finance



Recent public opinion research shows an alarming trend of rising public mistrust of our nation’s colleges and universities—a mistrust sparked by increases in tuitions and the perception of eroding value of higher education. Underlying these concerns is a growing problem of miscommunication between state officials, institutional leaders, and the public about where money for public higher education comes from, where it goes, and what it buys.

Counting Past Each Other, a report by Darcie Harvey commissioned by College Futures, calls for a new approach to financial measures in higher education in California. The report explains in detail how state officials, the University of California, and the California State University systems are “counting past each other” by using different ways to define and measure key indicators on how they use resources and how they measure student outcomes.

“Working from a standardized set of metrics is essential to understanding the tradeoffs that are being made, such as the implications on the need for tuition revenue against the priority to increase salaries,” said Harvey.

Counting Past Each Other identifies a host of areas in which the two public university systems fail to agree on common metrics or where such measures are missing entirely, including:

  • Revenue: There is no shared definition of what a core revenue item is, where it comes from, how it treats tuition and fees, and how financial aid is accounted for.
  • Expenditures: The two systems don’t agree on definitions for fixed costs, of which personnel is one of the biggest spending items. There are no common benchmarks that identify benefits as a percentage of compensation, for example, and no separate reporting for expenditures on salary and benefits.
  • Budgetary Transparency: The systems can’t properly track whether revenues are ongoing or one-time-only, which makes it impossible to know if they can be counted on in the future, and thus planned for.
  • Other Resource Use: The systems are ill-equipped to know whether all students are succeeding. They don’t know whether students were admitted to the school of their choice, and they don’t know if students are participating in summer school, extension courses, or off-campus centers. Also, while undergraduate degree completion rates are tracked, graduate completion rates are not.

The report makes specific recommendations for common metrics for revenues, expenditures, transparency, and measuring student success.

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