August 31, 2008 | Cost-Study Reports: Addressing Student Disengagement and High-Risk Behavior: How Much Does It Cost?

Student disengagement takes many forms. It is most apparent in academic contexts, in student behavior and student culture, and in the realm of civic involvement.

BTtoP seeks to address student disengagement on college and university campuses through a restructuring of institutional priorities and organization and by directly addressing the causes of the disengagement, rather than only responding to symptoms.

To assist in this effort, BTtoP commissioned a cost study. Researchers Dr. Ashley Finley (Dickinson College) and Dr. Lynn Swaner (Long Island University), recruited nine institutions (of various type and size) to collect information about the direct and indirect costs related to resources, personnel, and programming being employed on campus to address student disengagement. When the information was gathered, the aggregate data was analyzed to describe total and itemized spending.

Institutions were purposively and nonrandomly recruited from those already involved in the BTtoP Project, in hopes that these institutions would have easier access to the types of data the cost study sought and historical data that would allow some conclusions to be comparative over time. A comprehensive report on the study’s methodology and findings can be found on our Research page.

Selected Findings

The cost study determined that: (a) While institutional expenditures on mental health and well-being rose over time, the number of staff available to meet the demand for services decreased or stayed the same; (b) Participating institutions found it very difficult to keep financial and personnel resource information linked to objectives and outcomes; and (c) Expenditures on civic development programming significantly increased over the period 2002-2007, while expenditures related specifically to what institutions defined as “engaged learning” either declined over the five years or remained at the 2002 level. Detailed findings are available in the report on the Web site and may be useful when comparing one’s own institutional data.

Table 6 Construction of Composite BTtoP Variable

BTtoP Core Dimension


Total $$ 2001-02

Total $$ 2006-07

% Change

Mental Health 
and Well-being
Total Operating Budget 
Counseling & Psych. Services



Total Operating Budget Alc. 
& Substance Abuse 


Civic Development

Costs for Leadership Programming 




Costs for Service-Learning Programming




Costs for Volunteer Programming




In-Kind Funding




Engaged Learning

Total Operating Budget Engaged Learning Efforts




Costs for Teaching and Learning Center




Costs for Faculty Training




Costs for Teaching & Learning-related Events




Costs for Living-Learning ProgramsCosts for First-Year Seminar Programs




Costs for First-Year Seminar Programs




How Findings Can Help Advise Campus Planning

The authors of the study supply at the end of their paper a discussion of how the findings can aid institutional progression toward more effective means of addressing issues of student disengagement. They addressed: budget accountability and communication, program allocation and staffing, and intentional definitions of resource allocation—e.g. resources for preventative vs. responsive programs.

Study authors suggest that campus leaders find ways in which greater transparency can be built into budgeting to increase accountability, seek innovative ways to staff programs to accommodate personnel shortages, and create a universal campus language around programmatic efforts to construct bridges across offices and departments. They also suggest that accepting the reality of the economic climate that forces institutions to do more with fewer resources and people as opposed to treating it like a trend can force innovation both in programming and in the use of existing resources and incoming staff responsibilities and capabilities. The authors also suggest critically examining the cost-benefit analysis of defining measures related to student disengagement as preventative vs. responsive. Defining them has two potential functions: a) could facilitate both better budget accountability and inter-departmental communication; and b) could allow institutional cost-benefit analysis of each categorical value.

What is presented in the cost study report could lead to a more effective and efficient means of addressing student disengagement on our college and university campuses. It provides a practical solution for thinking about what already exists on campus—what’s already strong (successful programming, dedicated personnel, etc.)—and using it to strengthen the more fragile innovations (engaged learning, civic development) that will take time to be implemented.