It costs much more to train a future engineer than to train a future journalist. Some clever people might suggest that the difference in cost is quite understandable, since an ill-trained female engineer will tend to quit her profession while an ill-trained journalist may well rise to the top of his.
Since my undergraduate degree was in journalism, I won’t be that smart.
What I will suggest, however, is that policy makers pay more attention to the total cost – not just the net price – of earning college degrees. A new study co-authored by Steven Hemelt, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, offers helpful insights into the matter.
Hemelt and his colleagues extracted 17 years of data from a national survey of teaching costs in public and private institutions. Focusing on 20 major fields of study that collectively account for most student enrollment, they found large differences in teaching costs. Electrical engineering courses, for example, cost an average of $434 per credit hour. Communications and media courses averaged $185 per credit hour.
While other technical disciplines such as nursing ($375 per hour), mechanical engineering ($372), physics ($281) and computer science ($274) also had higher costs than average, the researchers found that the need to equip classrooms with technical equipment does not explain much of the variation in teaching costs. The key factors are the salaries of professors and instructors and the number of students in their classes.
Yes, it is often more expensive for universities to recruit teachers in technical fields for which there are lucrative alternatives such as private industry or research laboratories. People with math, science, or economics degrees can often earn more outside of the academy than inside, while the same may not necessarily be true for those with education degrees. , in history or in English.
But that’s not the only consideration. While professors in economics, political science, and business departments receive relatively high salaries, their teaching costs per credit hour approach the middle of the pack because their classes are relatively large.
Professors and instructors in education, for example, earn an average of $80,340 per year, while their counterparts in economics departments earn $123,720. In terms of teaching cost per credit hour, however, degrees in education are more expensive ($291) than degrees in economics ($218). This is because economics classes tend to be much larger than education classes. In engineering and nursing programs, however, classes must necessarily be smaller, so their higher faculty salaries translate into higher costs per student.
Hemelt and his co-authors also looked at trends over time. Although the actual costs of education as a whole did not increase significantly from 2000 to 2017, there were, again, considerable variations. In some high-demand STEM fields, costs per credit hour have actually fallen significantly as enrollment has increased and universities have chosen to increase class sizes or hire part-time adjuncts rather than to hire a proportionate number of professors leading to more costly tenure. In contrast, in areas such as history, sociology, education, and the arts, teaching costs per student credit hour have increased.
How about online instruction? So far, researchers have found that it hasn’t really moved the needle. “We find evidence that an increase in the share of undergraduate courses taken online is linked to lower salary costs,” they wrote. “But estimates for other cost drivers suggest that any short-term cost savings on salaries are offset by smaller class sizes and increased non-staff spending.”
The cost of any given program is, of course, only one side of the ledger. What are the benefits? I think we can all agree that developing well-educated, highly skilled, and innovative engineers is worth a significant investment of time and money. For other disciplines, however, the high and rising teaching costs are more difficult to justify.
Inevitably, universities will respond by increasing class sizes and making greater use of paraprofessionals. And non-academic institutions will respond by offering alternative ways of teaching and certifying professional skills. Both answers make sense to me.
John Hood is a board member of the John Locke Foundation and author of the novel Mountain Folk, a fantasy story set during the American Revolution (MountainFolkBook.com).