As competition grows on the higher-education front, more institutions are improving their position by focusing on an aspect that typically is the first-and often most remembered-impression prospective students and parents have as they search for a college: the physical environment.

According to American School & University's fifth annual College Maintenance and Operations (M&O) Cost Study, colleges are allocating more money and a larger percentage of their total budgets to improve the appearance and operations of facilities. Overall, colleges earmarked 10 percent of their total institution budgets to M&O for the 1998-99 school year (compared with 9.7 percent last year).

Survey methodology

To arrive at the results for this year's College M&O Cost Study, in-depth questionnaires were mailed to approximately 1,300 physical plant directors at 2-year colleges and 4-year institutions with no significant graduate programs. Respondents were asked to document expenditures for various M&O categories for the 1998-99 school year, including salaries, benefits, supplies, energy and equipment.

The survey specifically targets 2-year colleges and 4-year institutions with no significant graduate programs in order to provide useful comparative information. Larger 4-year colleges with significant graduate programs are not surveyed because their operations are so varied that results would be less useful.

Responding institution backgrounds vary. More than 93 percent of 2-year colleges responding to the survey are public, while 86 percent of 4-year colleges are private. This should be helpful when comparing your college's costs with those reported in the survey.

Facts and figures

Table 1 reviews M&O spending per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student, and includes breakdowns by 2-year, 4-year, and all colleges for such categories as salaries, benefits, energy, supplies, water/sewer, equipment, total M&O and equipment maintenance, and identifies the percentage of the total budget allocated to M&O by colleges.

Four-year colleges traditionally budget considerably more per student for M&O than their 2-year counterparts. For the 1998-99 school year, 4-year colleges allocated $1,559 per student while 2-year colleges spent $536. As described in previous surveys, the wide discrepancy in spending is most likely due to a number of factors, including the most obvious-4-year colleges differ significantly in their educational mission and offerings to students. In addition, 4-year colleges typically have more specialized buildings and courses; older physical plants; extensive laboratory and health facilities; housing; and 24-hour, year-round usage than 2-year colleges.

However, 2-year colleges continue to allocate a larger percentage of their total institution budgets to M&O than 4-year colleges. Two-year colleges allocate 10.5 percent of their total budgets to M&O while 4-year colleges dedicate 10 percent.

As can be expected, salaries and benefits represent the largest portion of M&O costs at both 2-year and 4-year colleges. Two-year colleges spend 54 percent of their M&O budgets on salaries and benefits, 4-year colleges 51 percent, and all institutions 52 percent.

Energy, including gas, electricity, oil and other sources, is the next most significant expenditure per student. Four-year colleges allocate a larger percentage of their budget (30 percent compared to 28 percent at 2-year institutions) to energy, and spend more than three times the amount ($465) per student than 2-year colleges ($152). The median college earmarks 26 percent of its M&O budget ($193 per student) to energy.

Supplies make up more than 10 percent of all colleges' M&O budgets per student, followed by equipment maintenance (5 percent), equipment (3 percent) and water/sewer (3 percent). While 4-year colleges spend more per student on supplies and water/sewer, 2-year colleges outspend them on equipment and equipment maintenance.