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Where your tuition money goes, in two charts

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

As the price of college continues to rise, and as tuition bills come due at the start of a new academic year, it's reasonable to ask: where is all that money going?

The Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research can answer that question. The group publishes information on where colleges and universities get their money, and how the spend it. Here's what the average public research university spends per full-time student:

public research universities delta cost

Auxiliary spending, the second largest category, consists of money spent on on dormitories, hospitals, bookstores, and other enterprises that also bring in revenue of their own.

Not all the money colleges spend is tuition money. At some types of colleges, tuition makes up less than half of the total annual revenue. Public colleges get a significant (if shrinking) chunk of their budget from the states. Colleges also get money from endowment returns, federal research grants, and other sources.

As for where it goes, spending on instruction includes faculty salaries and benefits, as well as the cost of administering academic departments. Academic support includes spending that's academic in nature but not directly related to teaching or research, such as supporting libraries, computer labs, and museums. Institutional support is other administrative spending, such as presidents' and vice presidents' salaries. And public service can be anything from public broadcasting to hosting conferences.

If the financial aid figure seems small, it's because the most significant financial aid most colleges provide is a tuition discount. Those discounts aren't counted as spending in the Delta Cost data.

Spending at private research universities breaks down about the same way — they just spend a lot more per student:

private research universities delta cost

Four-year in other categories have spending that breaks down along similar lines, although colleges that don't grant Ph.Ds spend much, much less on research than research universities do.

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