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Auburn among ‘priciest public colleges


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Auburn among America’s ‘priciest public colleges,’ Wall Street Journal reports

Updated: Dec. 28, 2023, 9:23 p.m.|Published: Dec. 28, 2023, 2:40 p.m.
5–7 minutes

Auburn University is one of America’s “priciest public colleges,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper spotlighted Auburn in a story today after examining budget documents spanning roughly 20 years, as the school’s overall budget ballooned from nearly $600 million in 2003 to $1.7 billion this fiscal year.

Unlocking the details of how colleges spend their money can be a challenge, as many schools don’t consistently disclose their costs in granular detail. The Journal said it chose Auburn as a case study, to help illustrate where money goes, including tuition, as families tighten budgets to send their children to college.

For the better part of three decades, Auburn has hired hundreds of administrators, increased staff and funding for certain departments, and paid down escalating debt.

Meanwhile, the average amount in-state freshmen pay in tuition after grants and scholarships topped $25,000 annually just two years ago, according to Education Department data - an increase of 60% from 15 years prior, when adjusting for current prices, according to the Journal.

Tuition at Auburn and the University of Alabama have increased dramatically over the last two decades, keeping pace with other universities around the country. 

An Auburn spokeswoman, in a written statement to the Journal, said the newspaper had a “predetermined agenda.”

“Financial decisions made by the Auburn University administration prioritize strategic investments that will enrich our students’ academic pursuits, personal development and post-graduation career success,” Jennifer Wood Adams, the university’s executive director of public affairs, told the paper.

AL.com also reached out to Adams, who did not immediately provide a response when asked about the Journal’s report.

In the Journal article, former Auburn president Steven Leath likened the pressure to stay ahead of other schools to “an arms race,” while former president Jay Gogue told the paper improvements are expensive and schools must raise tuition to keep pace with rising costs.

“It costs money to deliver quality education,” Gogue, who is now an interim president at New Mexico State University, said, according to the Journal. “You’ve got to have the facilities, you’ve got to have the faculty. It takes a lot of things.”

According to the school, Auburn’s current enrollment tops 33,000, which is 11,000 more than it was in 2000. More than 40% of students come from out-of-state.

The swelling numbers have led to massive building around campus. That’s reflected in payments to cover housing debt, which went from $1.5 million in 2002 to more than $16 million in 2016, according to the Journal.

During that time, the university built a $20 million information technology building, a $20 million kinesiology center, a $16 million indoor sports facility, an $84 million basketball arena and a $74 million recreation and wellness center, among other projects.

According to the Journal, the school’s cheapest dorm costs students $6,700 for two semesters, nearly double the cheapest option about two decades ago, accounting for inflation. Students must also foot the bill for a mandatory meal plan, which gives them access to more than 30 dining locations, but which can cost up to $5,352 a year.

The school’s staff has also ballooned, as reflected in what it pays for salaries, wages and benefits. In 2016, Auburn allocated $574 million, or roughly half its total budget. That’s about 1.6 times what it spent in 2002, according to the paper. But the number of faculty grew by 10% while the number of administrators grew by 73%, the Journal reported.

Over that time, the budget for the board of trustees also increased from less than $100,000 to $1.4 million, the paper stated.

The overall effect on tuition can be seen in Auburn’s net price to students, which for the 2021-22 year was $25,271. That’s down 7% from two years previously, but still $10,000 higher than in the late 2000s.

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, chairman of the senate’s finance, taxation and education committee, said the story left out at least one crucial piece of information - the effect of the 2009 economic recession, which bit heavily into state education appropriations.

“Alabama’s institutions of higher education took one of the hardest reductions in state appropriations,” he said. “What are your options? You’ve either got to cut a lot, or raise tuition, or do a combination of both. The variable I thought was missing (from the Journal story) was the significant reduction in state appropriations.”

To report on the budget numbers, The Journal stated that it collected Auburn’s annual published budgets from 2002 through 2016, as well as relying on Education Department data on college cost after scholarships.

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