Monday, September 21, 2009

The Real Cost of Undergraduate Education

The UC administration has announced its plan to decrease undergraduate enrollment and increase undergraduate fees 42% over a one-year period. But this strategy makes no sense for the UC system and will actually add to our budget woes. In the analysis below, I show what it really costs to educate a UC undergraduate student for a year.

My argument is that if we examine the salaries of the people teaching undergraduate courses at the UC and the average course load of UC students, we find that while UCOP claims that it costs over $20,000 to educate an undergraduate student for a year, the basic instructional cost per student is closer to $5,000. So while the state currently gives $9,650 per student and the students will next year be likely paying over $10,000, the real cost of instruction is about a quarter of the reported price.

To determine the real cost of instruction, we start with a few basic statistics: The average UC undergrad takes 45 credit hours per year, and we know that students usually take eight large courses (averaging 200 students) and two small courses (averaging 20 students) on campuses using the quarter system. We also know that tenure-line faculty teach half of the undergraduate credit hours and that lecturers and grad students teach the other half. In fact, tenure-line faculty generate 690 student credit hours per FTE, while lecturers produce 1,490 student credit hours per FTE. This statistic is very important because the current plan to reduce or eliminate lecturers would undermine the “efficiency” of the system. Keep in mind that in 2008, the average lecturer salary was $56,000, while the average tenure-line faculty member earned $106,000.

To determine the per-student cost of a small course taught by a tenure-line faculty member, we take the average salary ($106,000), divide it by the average course load (5.1), and divide this total by the number of students (20), we get $1,039, but, if we only count the part of the professor’s salary that goes to instruction (50%), the real cost is $520. If we perform this same calculation with lecturers, the average per student cost is $308. In the case of large courses holding 200 students, we can simply divide the cost of small courses by 10, and we get the per-student cost for large courses taught by tenure-line faculty as $52 and the cost for lecturers as $30. If we now take the average course load of a student who takes eight large courses and two small courses during an average year, with half of the courses taught by professors and half taught by lecturers, we get $878 (208 + 120 + 520 + 30). If we include the full cost of a professor (research + instruction), we get $1,606.

How about the cost of graduate students who teach small discussion sections accompanying the large lecture courses that undergrads take? To calculate this, we need to look at the average pay per course and the average course load and tuition remission of graduate student instructors. While we do not have exact figures here, I have been told that the cost per section at UCLA for a graduate student averages $6,000 (Please let me if this is wrong), and we know that many large classes do not have sections, and so we can only estimate that if a class of 200 has 10 sections of 20 students, the per student cost for each section is $300 (this does not include the cost of the tuition remission for graduate students). If a student takes 8 large classes during a year, and each class has a section taught by a graduate student, we have to add $2,400 to the total instructional cost, and we now get $3,278. However, none of these calculations include health benefits, which add an extra 20% to our calculations. If we include health benefits, we get $3,932 (this number is high because more than half of the lecturers are not eligible for benefits).

So why does UCOP claim that it costs over $20,000 for one year’s education of an undergraduate student? UCOP will argue that we have not accounted for the cost of classrooms, utilities, administration, libraries, and staff. Our first response is that we want to focus on just the direct instructional cost. Moreover, economies of scale operate here; it is clear that when you add a new student, you do not add a new classroom or add a new administrator. In fact, there have been very few new classrooms added in the UC system, and class sizes have recently gone up. Furthermore, it is impossible to tell what part of an administrator’s salary should go to supporting the instructional mission of the UC, and it is unclear why an undergraduate should pay for the raises of administrators and researchers. While I recognize that students and the state should pay for some part of the indirect or associated costs of UC operations, it strikes me as completely unjustifiable to have less than 25% of the undergraduate revenue go to direct instructional expenses.

What is abundantly clear is that undergraduates are subsidizing research, graduate students, and administrators, while their fees are being increased and their educational opportunities are being decreased. It is also clear that the state alone cannot be blamed for the escalating costs of student fees and tuition. The solution to the UC’s budget issues is thus to increase undergraduate enrollment, retain lecturers, and rely more on small, interactive classes that save money and enhance the quality of undergraduate education.

Sources:
The average student credit hours can be found at: https://sisds.ucdavis.edu/aboutinstruction.htm

The average course load and credit hours for senate faculty and lecturers comes from the annual “Faculty Instructional Activities” report: http://www.ucop.edu/planning/fia/documents/fia_annlrpt2007.pdf (pp. 13-14).

Average salaries for professors and lecturers:
http://ucpay.globl.org

The reason why we should only count half of the professor’s salary to calculate the instructional cost: http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~schwrtz/UndergradCost.html

For a study of the cost for graduate students: http://www.ucop.edu/sas/sfs/docs/gradsurvey_2007.pdf

For the average cost of benefits for faculty serving the core missions, see:
“The University of California 2008-09 Budget For Current Operations Summary of he Budget Request.”

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