Cost Estimates for Providing Learning Assistance

The following is an excerpt from my book, "Access at the crossroads" described in the left-hand column. 

It is clear that a large percentage of students use learning assistance services every year. Some policymakers perceive this high volume of participation and wide range of activities as too expensive. Recent studies disprove this view. As pervasive as learning assistance has become, it consumes a minor amount of a given institution’s budget. The most recent national study (Phipps, 1998) estimates its cost at less than $1 billion of $115 billion in the public higher education annual budget. This amount includes spending on developmental credit courses and noncredit services (tutoring, drop-in learning centers) that a wide variety of students of varying academic preparation levels use. Saxon and Boylan (2001) confirmed this finding through analysis of other similar studies. Additional analysis by Phipps (1998) found the unit cost of remedial or developmental courses was less than other academic content areas such as English, mathematics, or business. Classes were smaller than for most core academic subjects but cost less. It may be because faculty members who teach developmental courses are paid less compared with faculty members who teach other courses. It may also reflect the heavy use of adjunct and part-time instructors for these courses at public two-year institutions, the primary providers of these courses (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003).

Others advocates (Phipps, 1998; McCabe and Day, 1998; Wilson and Justiz, 1988) argue learning assistance is essential for economic reasons because of the costs to society and the economic level of students who do not complete their college degrees because sufficient learning assistance was lacking. The United States risks development of “an educational and economic under-class whose contributions to society will be limited and whose dependency on others will grow. The risk increases for creating a culture and economy that ignores the talents of a large number of citizens” (Wilson and Justiz, 1988, pp. 9–10). McCabe and Day (1998) estimate that 2 million students each year will drop out of postsecondary education because they did not participate in learning assistance, which will negatively affect their own lives as well as the national economy. Alphen (2009) conducted a multicountry study of the impact of not completing an undergraduate college degree. Controlling for country-level variables, the findings confirmed the negative economic impact of people not obtaining at least an undergraduate degree compared with the cost of providing postsecondary education.

Funded by the Lumina and Wal-Mart foundations, a national study investigated the costs and returns of providing academic support programs and the net impact on revenue at the institution. Institutions were two-year and four-year, public and private, of various sizes, and geographically dispersed throughout the United States. The study found that learning assistance was positively related to higher student persistence and increased revenue above the cost of providing academic support services (Delta Project, 2009). Another study focused on the Community College of Denver concerned the cost-effectiveness of learning assistance. Net revenue generated through higher rates of student persistence were significantly higher than the cost of the learning assistance services (Corash and Baker, 2009).