making college much cheaper

Imagine a college with 1,000 undergraduate students. If they all take eight seminars a year, if every class enrolls 20 students, and if each professor has a very manageable teaching load of five courses per year, the 1,000 students need 80 faculty members. If those 80 professors are paid, on average, the national median for an associate professor in the social sciences ($60,064) plus benefits ($20,028), then the total faculty payroll will cost $6,407,360. That comes to $6,407.36 per student per year.

Private colleges and universities are now charging almost eight times as much for a year’s education. Why?

  • Their usual bill includes room and board and various services, such as health plans and career counseling, as well as courses.
  • Universities are buildings, labs, lawns, stadiums, and admissions offices as well as courses and teachers.
  • Lots of people work at colleges beside professors. As I wrote here, “Harvard, for example, employs 5,102 “administrative and professional” staff (excluding clerical and technical workers and those in “service and trades”). Harvard has 112 full-time professional and administrative workers in its athletics department alone. This compares to 911 tenured faculty (or 2,163 total faculty).

When I suggested creating a  “no frills” college from scratch, various friends who work in student affairs, community engagement centers, and other parts of universities wrote privately to ask if I was disparaging their contributions. I would not want to do that. Many adults who work at colleges and universities educate as much and better than many faculty. The distinction isn’t even important to me. But if 80 professors could teach 1,000 students in small classes, then I think 100 educators (including some deans, coaches, counselors, co-curricular leaders, etc.) could serve a student body of 1,000. Even if those educators were paid $60,000 each plus benefits, the per-student cost would still be about $8,000.

I recognize that rent must be paid, lights lit, and diplomas printed. But would it not be possible to build a private, non-profit college whose base tuition was $10,000, whose curriculum was entirely devoted to seminars and labs, and which could employ students on financial aid to perform a substantial portion of its work?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.