Relative Cost of Education

A Plumber at work.

A Plumber at work. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a professor I am aware that the cost of a university education has increased significantly, even adjusting for inflation. I am also well aware that this cost increase is not due to proportional increases in faculty salary. One reason for this is that the salaries of professors, especially those at state school, tend to be compressed. For faculty who have been around a long time, such as myself, the compression can be quite extreme. This is one reason why star faculty move around relentlessly in search of ever larger salaries. Another reason is that universities are relying very heavily on badly paid adjuncts. While the rates vary, a typical adjunct can make about $24,000 over nine months for teaching eight classes. There are generally no benefits at all, so the cost to schools is rather low. Given that such faculty typically have advanced degrees, they are perhaps the worst paid of the best educated.

It is true, as I mentioned, that there are some star faculty—they are the celebrities of academics who can use their status and connections to slide smoothly from one well-paying job to an even better paying job. Such stars also sometimes enjoy exemptions from the mundane duties of faculty, such as teaching. As with any profession, such stars are relatively rare and they are generally not a significant factor in the increased cost of education. As such, blaming the faculty for the higher cost is not, in general, a legitimate complaint.

That said, I do agree that complaining about the cost of education is legitimate: costs have increased significantly while there are increasing doubts about the quality and value of education. However, it is worthwhile to put the cost of education into perspective. Being a professor, I will focus on the educational aspects of the matter.

At a state school like my own Florida A&M University, a student will typically take a class from a person with a terminal degree in her field, usually a doctorate. A standard class is three credit hours, which means that a student is supposed to be in class for two and a half hours per week. My fellows and I typically teach four classes per semester and we are required to hold two hours of office hours per class. We also have various other research, advising and administrative duties. Thanks to email, students can also contact us around the clock—and many faculty, including myself, respond to emails outside of normal hours and on the weekends. We also typically do work for the classes, such as grading, preparing lessons and so on throughout the week and during “vacations.”

While the exact hours will vary, a student at a school like FAMU will have access to a professional with and advanced degree for 2.5 hours in the classroom, have access to 8 hours of office hours, and typically have unlimited email access. Most faculty are also willing to engage with students in their off time—for example, I have stopped while grocery shopping to explain a paper to a student who also happened to be shopping at that time. This is in return for the cost of tuition, only a small fraction of which goes to the professor.

Now, compare this to the cost per hour for other professionals. For example, a psychiatrist might charge between $125-$285 per hour. As another example, a plumber might charge $90 an hour. As a third example, a consultant might charge anywhere from $30 to thousands of dollars an hour. As a fourth example, an attorney might charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

Imagine what it would cost to have a plumber, medical doctor, or attorney spend 2.5 hours a week with you for 16 weeks (divided by the other people, of course), be available an additional eight hours a week, do work for you outside of those hours, respond personally to your emails and so on.  If professors billed like plumbers, lawyers or medical doctors, the cost of school would be insanely high.

It might be replied that plumbers, lawyers and medical doctors perform services that are more valuable than mere professors. After all, a plumber might fix your pipes, a lawyer might get you a nice settlement and a medical doctor might re-attach your quadriceps tendon. A professor merely teaches and surely that has far, far less value. The obvious practical reply is that people with college degrees make considerably more than those without—this would suggest that teaching does provide some value. There is also the obvious fact that plumbers, medical doctors and lawyers need education in order to do what they do—thus showing that education does provide something of value (although plumbers typically do not go to college to become plumbers).

As such, while education is too expensive, the actual cost of paying professors is ridiculously cheap relative to what other comparable professionals cost.


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  1. s. wallerstein

    You university professors are too nice and you get stepped on, as nice people generally do.

    You are really and truly concerned about educating the public, Mike and that is laudable, really laudable.

    I take off my hat (or rather my baseball cap, since I don’t have a hat) to you and to all people like you, but do you really expect the society we live in to value people like you for what you are worth?

    This is a society which runs after and goes crazy about the latest stupid gadget marketed by greedy companies, which worships huge TV sets and idiotic reality shows which they show, which despises silence, which is destroying the planet and throwing garbage (as you yourself note in other posts) everywhere, etc., which is incapable of calmly walking around the block, which is obsessed by so-called sports events in which one gang of brutes tries to get the “better of” another gang of brutes, etc., etc.

    Mike, we’re lucky that they don’t lynch us. Don’t expect them to pay us well too.

  2. I would agree with the author, but his assertion is too general.

    Take for instance the 2.5 hours that a Prof spends in class. How do you quantify the value of that time?

    I’ve had both good and bad Profs, and usually the bad ones end up boring the students and waning their interests from the topic, so much that it can affect their entire lives.
    Several times I’ve returned to a particular topic and found it profoundly interesting, now that I can study in my free time, and wonder what was that Prof thinking when teaching the topic?

    The author has noble ideals, and I applaud them and wish more Profs like him existed, but that’s not the case. Not every Prof is interested in teaching. Most are just interested in pumping out as many papers as they can, teaching is just ‘a part of their contract’.

    Also take into account that the financial support for research has to either come from the tuition paid by students, or industry sponsorships. So I guess it’s not only the staff’s salaries.
    I wonder what’s the loan worth when it takes 5-7 years to pay it off.

    The only thing a college life provides is the freedom to take risks and try out new things without any severe consequences. Is that alone worth the cost? You decide.

  3. Not to mention the massive amount of time assessing student work, designing courses, and preparing for courses. University of Phoenix may pay you as low as $1800 for a 9 week course demanding high rigor with participation and assessment from the faculty.

  4. Andrew,
    Some schools pay even less. One of my friends worked for ITT for $1500 per class.

  5. Hi Earthians,

    On my Planet we have all education that includes higher education for free,because we do not waste taxpayers money for politicians and administrators like you do.

    You are 60 years behind mainstream

    I feel sorry for your kids what kind of world you prepared for them?

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