One Really Expensive Graduation Party

May 23, 2012

We’re nearing the end of May, which means we’re right smack in the middle of college commencement season.  Maybe your child or another family member is graduating (congratulations!), and you’ll be taking part in some festivities yourself this year. And when you peer out over the sea of graduates, you might just wonder to yourself – how much did all of this cost?

I don’t mean the ceremony itself—it’s probably worth the money to celebrate success—I mean how much did it cost to produce all of those graduates? I’m warning you right now that you might not actually want to know the answer, because it isn’t pretty. But if you’re brave enough, have a seat, hold onto something sturdy, and keep on reading.

Let’s say you go to this year’s Ohio State University commencement. And let’s also say they have a pretty average sized graduating class of roughly 10,000 students. When you look out over the crowd, you’ll be looking at nearly $750,000,000 worth of caps and gowns. That’s nearly a billion dollars spent, just on the time between receiving a high school diploma and the receipt of a bachelor’s degree. And that’s just for one graduating class, at one institution.

This isn’t to pick on either Ohio or Ohio State University. The numbers are relative to the state average cost per degree, so it’s not necessarily how much this particular institution spent. The state of Ohio spends roughly $75,000 to produce each bachelor’s degree, which actually isn’t all that far away from the national median of about $68,000. One would think it would be significantly less expensive to produce two-year credentials, but it’s really not. The national median for an associate’s degree is now about $57,000. The point of this exercise is that it’s become phenomenally expensive to actually produce college graduates, and few are really paying attention beyond the sticker price of tuition.

We ran these numbers for a graded metric in our upcoming report, Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Public Postsecondary Education. We measured the raw cost per degree produced, in addition to looking at state and local funding per degree and state, local, and tuition funding per degree. We then adjusted each of these statistics to account for differences in regional labor costs. We were frankly astounded when we compiled the full data on efficiency, and without giving too much away, the Ohio example I just used is nowhere near the worst. 

There are a lot of reasons for this level of inefficiency and we go over many of them in the report. I hope you’ll join us when we unveil it on June 19th at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  You can register for the event for free on our website, icw.uschamber.com.

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