Although salary increases of faculty and high-level administrators at universities are not to blame for tuition hikes, an increase in non-faculty positions—among other factors—did play a role in tuition increases.

The Delta Cost Project, conducted by the American Institutes for Research, looks at how colleges and universities spend their money and the results of those expenditures. The Institutes' recent study—Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive? Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education—connected the differences in faculty and staff hiring patterns over the past two decades to student tuition. Using data reported by the institutions, the study found that mid-level staff were hired more frequently, which correlates with tuition increases more at public universities than private ones like Duke.

“Everybody always talks about higher ed being a very labor-intensive industry, that most of the expenses are going to pay people’s salaries,” said Rita Kirshstein, managing director at American Institutes for Research. “We can’t say by any means that faculty salaries were the cause of rising tuition for the last decade, because they really didn’t rise that much.”

Instead, Kirshstein said the study pinpointed the largest amount of growth in number and salary expenses in mid-to-lower level administrative positions and non-instructional student services, such as those in admissions and financial aid.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, confirmed Kirshstein’s speculations and said the biggest expense for Duke is its faculty, staff and academic and student support.

“Compared to other research universities, we’re actually in line and probably more efficient in terms of number of staff versus faculty,” Schoenfeld said. “We’ve been able to figure out how to provide more services with fewer people.”

The Delta Cost Project also found that increases in the number of part-time faculty helped universities keep costs down, Kirshstein said.

Schoenfeld noted that because there are very few adjunct professors on campus, this finding does not hold true for Duke. He added there have been several years since the 2008 recession where faculty and staff salaries were not increased at all. The amount of tuition charged does not completely cover all of the University's expenses, he said, so salaries of faculty and staff are not totally dependent on student-paid tuition.

“Every part of the University and every part of the education and residential experience at Duke has a cost to it,” Schoenfeld said. “What it costs to provide an institutional experience [for] students is much more than we actually imburse for.”

Kirshstein said she was more concerned about tuition increases in public universities because the amount of financial aid awarded in private universities has also increased.

Schoenfeld echoed a similar concern and said that as tuition increases, the number of students who receive need-based financial aid and the amount that they receive both increase.

The average need-based grant aid for 2012-2013 was $37,500, compared to $34,900 the previous year, said Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of financial aid.

“Just because the cost of tuition goes up doesn’t mean family contribution goes up,” Rabil said. “I think we’re competitive [with other private universities] and we do well, given what we have.”

Schoenfeld noted that, ultimately, there are multiple causes for student tuition increases.

“Our costs for everything from faculty salaries to infrastructure facilities, utilities, all those things factor into the actual tuition,” Schoenfeld said. “It’s not accurate, at least for Duke, to say that there’s only one reason why tuition and costs increase every year.”