- Teaching costs at U.S. colleges vary by discipline but are generally higher in preprofessional programs and in fields where graduates earn bigger salaries, according to a recent paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper drew its findings from more than 550 institutions and 7,150 programs from 2000 to 2015.
- Compared to the average English class, which runs about $12,500 for instructional costs, electrical engineering classes cost 109% more per credit and math classes cost about 22% less. This variation can be attributed to differences in class sizes and somewhat to how much faculty members are paid.
- Some STEM disciplines saw sharp drops in spending during the study period, including mechanical engineering, chemistry, physics and nursing, while others saw increases. These changes were partly due to larger classes, increased teaching loads and a shift toward contingent faculty.
In a recent blog post for Inside Higher Ed, a community college administrator wrote that the NBER's findings are not surprising to those within the field who are aware that earnings from classes such as history are often used to offset the higher costs of other programs.
"This matters because many outsiders assume that if we could just drop the 'ivory tower' stuff and focus entirely on job readiness, the budget would balance," wrote Matt Reed, vice president for learning at Brookdale Community College, in New Jersey. "In fact, we'd go bankrupt."
The findings come at a time when lawmakers have been pushing colleges to prove they provide a pathway to better employment prospects amid tuition hikes and soaring levels of student debt. The researchers note some policymakers have been trying to boost enrollment in high-income fields to better student outcomes, but little is known about the long-term economic consequences of driving more students to these disciplines.
Some colleges grappling with diminished state support and shrinking enrollment have been reexamining some of their programs in an effort to alleviate budget crunches. The leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, for example, recently drew fire from faculty and staff after they announced plans to cut six majors — including programs with low enrollment such as French, history and geography — and lay off up to 10 faculty members.
And in August, the University of Akron said it would phase out roughly one-fifth of its degrees, citing low enrollment and not enough workplace demand for many of the cut programs. The university stated in an announcement that the cuts would enable it to funnel resources into programs with more interest and better opportunities for students. However, the decision was slammed in a letter from an organization representing professors across the state alleging the university, which is facing an estimated $16 million budget deficit, was valuing funding over education.
Policymakers considering such changes to their program offerings should recognize high-income disciplines also tend to cost more to teach, the NBER researchers wrote. They suggested several options for higher education leaders to consider for tempering rising costs, including "changing the mix of faculty ranks," increasing class sizes and taking some courses online.