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Math Field Least Expensive to Teach, Electrical Engineering the Highest

A new working paper has examined the cost of educating students in various fields. Apparently, education is more expensive to teach than just three other subjects: mechanical engineering, nursing and electrical engineering. Interestingly, even as individual disciplines may have risen or fallen dramatically in cost, the research project found that the overall average instructional cost per student credit hour has "barely budged" over the 15 years of the study period.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Michigan and the University of Delaware used department-level data on the expenditures, outputs and factors of production for a sizable, diverse sampling of four-year institutions from 2000 to 2015 to uncover the instructional costs within institutions. The data came from a compilation maintained at U Delaware, which, since 1998 has collected program-level data from more than 700 four-year public and private non-profit higher education institutions and some 22,000 programs.

 Math Field Least Expensive, EE Highest to Teach

A cross-sectional variation in expenses over different disciplines.Electrical engineering averages more than $475 per student credit hour, about $300 more than for math.

According to "Why Is Math Cheaper than English? Understanding Cost Differences in Higher Education," published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), costs are "generally higher" in disciplines where graduates earn more and in pre-professional programs.

The researchers used English as the benchmark. According to the report, the average English class with 20 students incurred about $12,500 in instructional expense. Electrical engineering came in 109 percent higher than that; math was 22 percent lower.

The researchers could explain most of the variation in costs by examining the differences in class sizes and faculty pay. Economics was an example of that. Economics instructors "are more highly paid" with a lighter workload than English instructors, but those classes also tend to be "much larger," thereby offsetting the higher salary and lower workload. An opposite example was mechanical engineering, where those faculty also earn a higher wage and have lower teaching loads than English instructors. Yet, the class sizes are only "modestly larger," resulting in a just a tiny offset, making mechanical engineering 82 percent more expensive than English.

Some STEM fields experienced steep declines in expense over the past 15 years while others rose. The ones that dropped included mechanical engineering, chemistry, physics, biology and nursing. The researchers explained those trends by finding large increases in class size (for mechanical engineering and nursing) and increases in faculty teaching load (chemistry and biology) as well as a shift to the use of adjunct faculty.

The same research found that online instruction was linked with (though not necessarily caused by) a "modest reduction" in the cost per student, but only for the largest undergraduate online courses. In the 20 disciplines studied for the project, almost half (48 percent) of the programs had no online enrollment. Online offerings tended to be more prevalent in graduate education, the report noted.

The researchers suggested that additional work needed to be done to understand the ties between the "inputs" (such variables as faculty wages and class size) and the outcomes -- student performance and success after college.

The working paper is available in digital form on the NBER website for a nominal fee.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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