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The Big Ten conference logo is seen as a piece of sculpture in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2017. Content Exchange

Say the name “Big Ten” and most people will think of a powerhouse college athletics conference featuring high-profile schools that span the Midwest.

But for all the national championships in football, basketball and other sports, most of the hundreds of thousands of students who attend the 14 institutions that make up the Big Ten will never suit up on prime time TV. Like any other college student, the vast majority of the men and women at Big Ten schools are mostly focused on gaining the skills and certifications they need to go on to have successful careers and lives.

The Center Square examined the Big Ten schools across a variety of cost and performance metrics. Using data collected by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni for its “How Colleges Spend Money” website, The Center Square ranked the 14 schools in these categories both for their current standing in each metric and also for how much they’ve improved or declined over the past decade or so.

Northwestern University, located just outside Chicago, is a private institution, unlike the other 13 schools in the Big Ten, and receives far less public funding.

When factoring in aspects like how much a school spends on instruction vs. administration; tuition cost; and how that tuition cost compares to the median household income in which state the school is located – among other indicators – the University of Iowa leads the way among Big Ten schools when it comes to effectively spending public dollars and tuition funds on educating its students, according to The Center Square's analysis of the publicly available data.

Ranking graphic


To compile these rankings, The Center Square studied ACTA’s data in the following categories:

  • Administrative cost per student
  • Instructional cost per student
  • Administrative/instructional cost ratio
  • Inflation-adjusted tuition
  • Tuition as a percentage of state median household income
  • Graduation rates for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees

For most of these categories, the lower number resulted in the better ranking. The exception was for graduation rates, where higher is better. ACTA provided up to nine years of data in each of these categories, allowing for rankings not only for where schools stand in the most recent data, but also how much the school has improved or declined in each category over recent years. The 12 sets of rankings that resulted were combined to create a single, overall ranking.

At the other end of the spectrum was Penn State University, a school that, compared to its Big Ten peers, is asking more of its students and its home state in terms of funding, and in the process spends more to educate those students.

Among the 13 public schools in the conference, Penn State charged the most for tuition, according to ACTA’s data, had the highest administrative cost, had the highest instructional cost per student, and its tuition had the highest share of the state’s median income.

Penn State, unlike most schools, combines data from its main campus with that from its branches for the purposes of reporting. Armand Alacbay, the vice president for trustee and government affairs for ACTA, pointed out that the data is self-reported by the schools to federal education authorities.

“Much of the data that we use to assess institutions, compare institutions comes from the the U.S. Department of Education,” Alacbay said. “It's all publicly available. It's called the the IPED system, or the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data system.”

Alacbay made clear that the information provided on the “How Colleges Spend Money” website isn’t meant to be a comprehensive accounting of the financial state of any given school. Instead, it’s meant as an indicator that might lead school trustees to dig deeper.

“We picked the metrics that we thought would be much like the check engine light on a car,” he said. “It won't tell you exactly what's wrong with your vehicle, your institution, but it does serve as a way to prompt additional questions. So really, we rely on trustees to do the hard work of asking their institutions, well, what does this mean? What are the implications of these figures?”

Many of the high-profile schools in the conference, such as Ohio State, the University of Illinois, Michigan State and the University of Michigan landed in the middle of the overall rankings, though in each case there were varying individual numbers. For instance:

• Over 2009-17, the period for which ACTA provided tuition data, Ohio State’s tuition rose less than any other school, $379 over the near-decade. On the other hand, the administrative cost per student rose by $456 from 2009 to 2016; only three public schools in the conference saw a higher increase.

• The University of Illinois had a lower administrative cost per student than any other Big Ten school in the most recent data. But the school’s instructional cost per student increased more than for any other public school in the conference from 2009 to 2016, by $4,105.

• Michigan State was a solid second place in the instructional cost per student category, at $16,801, trailing only the University of Nebraska. But no other Big Ten public school saw such a small increase in graduation rates – 49 percent of the freshmen from 2003 graduated, and 52 percent of the freshmen from 2011.

• The University of Michigan had the second-best graduation rates for 2011 freshmen among Big Ten schools, according to ACTA. But it was second-highest among public institutions when it comes to instructional cost per student in 2016 and slid to the same ranking in tuition as a percent of state median household income in the 2016-17 school year.

Alacbay, when asked if there was a link between the instructional spending and the graduation rates, said spending more on instruction might not necessarily lead to better outcomes.

“You'll see schools, plenty of schools, where you have high expenditures, low graduation rates, and vice versa,” he said. “And so those are excellent indicators where boards should really pay attention if their school's results seem anomalous, relative to others.”

Dave Lemery is regional editor for The Center Square, overseeing coverage in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He welcomes your comments. Contact Dave at

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