Tag Archives: cost

CollegeQandA asks: Why is university so expensive?

Why is university so expensive?

There is a general concern that the cost of higher ed is too high.  The question is, why is university so expensive?  The answer is the cost to pay people is high, and the funding for paying people is mainly left to the individual.

American money fanned outPeople are expensive

The people in the “university so expensive” case are the faculty and staff.  For example, to maintain a low faculty-to-student ratio (let’s say 20:1 which might be considered high) you arguably have 20 students paying for one faculty.  Let’s further argue that with benefits and pay the 20 students need to cover around 200,000 dollars.  Already, each of you needs to pay around 10,000 just for that single faculty.

Other ratios might enlighten us all

That single faculty is now paid, but what about the staff and administration needed to run a large institution.  What is the staff to student ration or the administration to student ratio?  What about the coach to student ratio?  Each one of these people has both pay and benefits, and therefore, tuition dollars also need to be allocated to these resources.

Who pays for the heat and electricity?  Who pays for the IT staff and infrastructure?  Who pays for the gym, career center, and grounds up keep?  It’s all part of tuition.

Does public education mean anything

In theory, public schools are fully (ha!) or partially funded by public tax dollars.  The idea is that we as a collective help pay for a young persons education to allow for their career mobility.  The reality is that less and less public funds are going to public universities, and as this happens the public university needs to raise tuition (or in a way, privately tax the young).

This is a societal choice, but under current trends an undergraduate degree is expensive, and the majority of the cost is used to pay the people that teach, maintain, and run the institution.  That’s why university is so expensive.

Credits: photo titled: Money Hand Holding Bankroll Girls February 08, 20117; by Steven Depolo


CollegeQandA asks: Why do STEM fields seem better than other fields?

What is STEM?

Plant Stem

No, not plant stems or glass stems.  STEM is an acronym within education and industry for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  And because these fields have beneficial economic links to each countries success (economy, GDP, etc.), training people with these degrees is being pushed to students.

I’m biased in the following discussion.  I have degrees in computer engineering, and I believe that my engineering degrees have helped me not only in my profession, but have provided me knowledge and skills that helped make me a better person.

Is STEM good? better?

Why do STEM fields seem better than other fields?  There is no good or better when it comes to pursuing degrees.  However, the reality is that from an income perspective and number of career based jobs linked that are linked to a degree, STEM based jobs have both higher starting and medium salaries and probabilities are higher that average performers will find jobs.  So you might perceive  that these degrees are better.

From an individuals perspective, I think your success and happiness are linked to your intrinsic motivation.  Do you want to work in your chosen area for at least the next 20 years of your life.  Are you willing to hate 8 to 9 hours of your day for compensation.  In some cases, those 20 working years are equal to or greater than the number of years you have lived.

Are STEM degrees harder?

The answer here is another yes/no.  For many students science, technology, and math seem hard and for that reason people get scared away.  Note, however, that becoming an excellent writer, artist, or all other so called “non-technical” person is equally hard.  Maybe being average is not hard, but because those other fields are more challenging to become employed in, you will tend to need to become excellent.

Many of the students I talk to who are pursuing engineering degrees have a similar fear or dislike for writing that is similar to their counterparts dislike of math and science.  The thing is, they’re all hard to become good at, and they all take time, grit, and pain to learn.  Also, success in a career requires more than just the knowledge you gain from a degreee.

Going forward…

Pick a field that you have interest in, you want to learn about, and you will seriously commit to learning in.  If you make a committed effort to learn something then you will find fascinating aspects within that field that will help you grow.  There is something to be said of picking a STEM degree because of the economic benefits of these degrees, but don’t think a single reason makes these degrees a good choice for you.

Credits: photo titled: Sunny Stem; by GollyGforce – Living My Worst Nightmare


CollegeQandA asks: What to look at on a college visit?

The College campus visit

View of american university

I see visitors to our campus year round, but during fall there is a big upswing in the number of tours.  This makes sense since this is about the time a high school senior student is trying to pick where they will apply and attend next year.  So now on the tour, what to look at on a college visit?

Just like this website, it’s all about questions.  However, you must realize that colleges are going to present themselves as best as they can.  So, this is where you need to either find the honest person or ask probing questions to find out what really matters.

Ignore how pretty the university is among other things

If you can, start by assuming that all colleges have their beauty and traditions.  How nice the place looks is not relevant to your education and future career.  The following does not matter that much except in special cases:

  • How big is your dorm room (getting a single room might matter)?
  • How new is the student center?
  • How good is the rec center?
  • How good is the BLANK sports team?
  • Are there smart boards in the classrooms?
  • How many Nobel laureates are there at this institution?
  • What rankings is this university doing well in?
  • Is there a water park – really…?

The second piece of advice that seems to be becoming common is, “you’ll just feel right when you get to the college for you”.

I would argue that most colleges of a mid-range status provide a good undergraduate education, and most colleges have a similar culture, resources, and structure compared to each other.  The difference between an elite school and a mid-range school is less about the education you will receive, and is more about the strength of the cohort that will attend with you and potential access to alumni.  A strong cohort sometimes means being a small fish in a big pond.  You have to ask if elite or mid-range provides you what you want.

For example, my first question to any out-of-state visitor to our school is, “Why aren’t you thinking of going to state school X in your state?  They have a good engineering school.”

Figure out what you want

Your questions should be directed when you visit.  What you really want to know is will the undergraduate education be suitable for what you want and how you learn.  This can mean:

  • How much interaction will I have with the professors? – some people want lots; some people don’t want any
  • What will be my typical class size in my first year as well as my fourth year? – do you want small or large classes
  • How hard is it to get in the major I want to pursue? – will you be able to get in and succeed in your desired path (what is the retention rate in that major – not the school)
  • What do people from school X do after degree Y? – where are graduates going geographically and work wise, and is this what you want to do
  • How much will it cost? – you need to get a feel for the cost (tuition+extras – typical discounts)
  • Do you have any special needs and are there services for that need? – if you need something special will it be available
  • What distractions/entertainment are there at a college like this? – residential and city campuses have very different types of lifestyle
  • How is the community and culture of the major you want to do? – what do students and faculty do

In the end, skip the tour and stay local

My advice is to stay in-state for your undergraduate degree.  I believe almost everyone can adapt to the school they pick, so just pick one in state and start there.  Community colleges are another great opportunity if you are a little bit unsure and want to try with a lower entry cost.  There’s nothing wrong with touring a bunch of schools for interest sake, but I don’t think these tours should be a large factor in your decision.  If anything, these tours will market to your consumer desires as opposed to what matters in an undergraduate institution – educating yourself and obtaining the degree!

Credits: photo titled: American University ; by chucka_nc


CollegeQandA asks: What are the hidden costs of college?

It’s not just tuition and room and board

Routlette WheelThe idea that college is expensive is in our common culture, and it’s true.  The sticker price (sticker price = the tuition cost and sometimes the room and board costs) of colleges is regularly quoted to give you an idea of the base cost of attending college.  Note that depending on your situation, sticker price is not what you should expect to pay when considering discounts and scholarships.  However, sticker price is a nice ballpark starting point to calculate costs.

The reality is that there are other costs – hidden or not – that are not quoted in the sticker price.  I knew of these additional costs, but an excellent NPR article got me thinking about this more.  There are hidden costs, and these costs can be significant if you don’t watch it.

Hidden costs

What are the hidden costs of college?  The article lists a few of these hidden costs, and I’ve added some of mine in the following list:

  • Textbooks – sometimes required for classes
  • Travel – how are you going to get to and from college
  • Healthcare – you need to be protected if you get sick
  • A new laptop – is it really needed?
  • Your phone – the plan and the phone are pricey
  • Calculator – you can’t use your phone on an exam
  • Clothes – you need to wear something
  • Coffee – fancy caffeine drinks aren’t cheap
  • Alcohol – if you’re of drinking age it can be expensive
  • Class supplies – depending on what you are doing you need supplies
  • Fees – any club or organization you are a member of might have membership fees

Shared knowledge

This is an ongoing list/idea that I think we should build and improve on to help others.  In a previous article, I talked about the moving list hack that I created to help you automate packing. I’ve added a second page to that document trying to list and estimate additional college costs that you might need to consider.  Please consider commenting or writing me with other costs so we can collectively help ourselves and improve on this shared knowledge.

Credits: photo title: So Close; by Bruce Martin


CollegeQandA related links: College report cards; For profit = for debt; Is college too expensive?

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CollegeQandA asks: Is college lifestyle inflation a problem?

What is lifestyle inflation?

Kermit Macy balloon inflatingLifestyle inflation is the idea that even as we, potentially, make more income, our cost of living somehow matches or exceeds that increase such that we never seem to have enough money.  This idea is associated with moving up the ladder and getting promoted, but I suspect the problem can start in college where the idea of “roughing it” seems to be disappearing for some students.

Is college lifestyle inflation a problem?

Last week, I answered what are the hidden costs in college.  Many of these items are what I would classify as luxuries.

Let’s start with your computer.  A laptop is not a necessity for most colleges; at our university there are plenty of computer labs with desktop machines, the library is full of terminals, and the library even lends out laptops (both Mac and PCs).  The question might then be, is the software needed for your class and project work available on these devices?  I teach and use a very dedicated type of software (Quartus for FPGA design).  I know this software is available in all our labs, and therefore, I suspect that most software that is used in a course will be available.

The laptop, however, is convenient and something like 60% of students will buy a new laptop when they enter college.  Just so you are aware, the computation power, memory, and storage space on almost any modern laptop is much greater than what you will need for the entire four years – unless you are playing video games, designing and running complex simulations, or rendering 3D landscapes.  The difference between the low-end and high-end laptop from the perspective of surfing the web, word processing, spreadsheets, and basic design (such as programming) will all run fine on the low-end machine.  So save your money.

In many ways, college is about experiencing that first step into adulthood.  In that experience, I believe that you should make your furniture out of milk-crates, and you should visit the thrift store to find a t-shirt with some interesting vintage logo.  I suspect that many students think that college life should be as comfortable as their lives with their parents.  Based on this, that means even before you get your first paycheck, your living level is starting at the same level as your parents (who are making a living and have already struggled to afford some of our commercial worlds nicer things).  Lifestyle inflation will crush these future graduates if they stay at this level – cue consumer debt.

Multi-generation Lifestyle Inflation

That title above is my new name for this potential problem.  College should be a little bit of a struggle and that means lowering your lifestyle standards.  In the worst case, you should have to choose between the fancy coffee or matching lampshade, curtains, and duvet.  To help you in your consumer life, the stoics used negative visualization to prevent hedonic adaptation.  Good luck.

Credits: photo titled: macy’s balloon inflation; by Charley Lhasa


CollegeQandA asks: Why do I have to buy this textbook?

Textbooks – a major cost in university

text book stack: Why do I have to buy this textbook? Why do I have to buy this textbook?  At 50 dollars a book, roughly on the low end, and at 500 dollars on the high end, textbooks can be a major cost in university.  Let’s take a look at textbooks from three angles –  teacher, student, and the market.

Teachers perspective

From the professors perspective there are a number of reasons that a textbook is used with a class.  First and foremost, the textbook is complimentary/supplementary material as related to the course.  This means that ideas covered in lecture are also covered in the textbook in another voice, and by another voice, I mean that the authors of the textbook are teaching the material through writing, images, examples, and problems in a different way than the professor.  This is the most valuable aspect of a textbook, as supplementary information, but don’t think that the assigned textbook is the only voice to use to help your learn the course’s ideas.

There is this strange building(s) called the library that, likely, carries a number of textbooks in the related topic.  If you don’t like, are having trouble with, or can’t understand the assigned textbook, consult other textbooks to find the voice that speaks to you best and helps you learn the material.

Teachers might also use a textbook to help them organize how to present the material.  In some cases, your professor is not an expert in the field, and has some expertise, but not to the detail of teaching without a textbook.  In these cases, textbooks provide teachers with insight on one ways to organize the ideas and present them in a logical progression.  This includes problems and challenges associated with the material, which a textbook has carefully created, and likely, has worked out solutions.  Creating a problem related to the material is tricky.

Finally, teaching is time consuming.  Full disclosure: Textbook writers and publishers will incentivize professors by preparing materials including lectures, problems, exams, and quizzes so that the professor can save some of their time.

Student perspective

A textbook can be a major cost to your budget, but even required textbooks are not necessarily required.  You need to find out:

  1. How is the textbook used in this class?  Consult the syllabus and ask the teacher.  Is there open book exams and is this the only textbook you can use?  Are problems assigned from the textbook?
  2. Are there cheaper formats of the textbook – online, used, renting?  Depending on how the textbook is being used this can be fine, but beware that different textbook editions may change the problem numbering, references, and even include different material.
  3. Does the book make sense at my level of understanding?  If you can’t understand the book, check for others in the library.
  4. Does the book provide enough examples?   If it doesn’t do as above, and also look for problem and example books.
  5. Will the book be used in more than one class?  If it is, then the one-time cost can be thought of as lower as you divide the cost per class.
  6. Is this the textbook that everyone uses?  There are some textbooks that many universities use and professionals keep as a reference.  Check to see if the textbook is on all the professors shelves, or if someone working in the field has kept the book.  Normally, these textbooks will appear in your third and fourth year.
  7. How many copies and what lending out rules does the library have for the textbook?  Note that the textbook might be available in the library, but how long can you have it for?

Introductory textbooks in areas such as physics, calculus, english, philosophy, etc. are numerous and come in all shapes and sizes.  I found these books to be less useful, but again depending on question 1 you may or may not need to buy it.

One of the best methods to learn about textbooks is to make friends with people who are a year or two ahead of you and ask them what they thought about the textbook.  Peers provide valuable advice, but don’t take that advice as law.  More than one opinion and thinking for yourself is important in this decision, and the cheaper route is not always the best route.

Market perspective

This is the perspective I have the least understanding of since I’ve never been part of it.   As a student, I felt that many textbooks were a means to make money adding very little value to my courses.  On other occasions, the textbook taught me the course since the professor did such a poor job.

As a professor, the market is making someone money, and note, it is probably not your professor.  I would guess that a few publishers and bookstores are doing very well selling books.
Textbooks are part of university and college life.  Take some time to figure out if you need the book.

Credits: Photo by Logan Ingills; titled: just the ones i’m getting rid of