Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How much should it cost to study chemistry?

President Obama recently outlined his plan to address the high cost of a college education. Praise and criticism immediately followed, but it's undeniable the price tag for a college education has risen faster than the rate of inflation. It's actually an interesting exercise to play around with the scorecard tool at My take home was that most prestigious/high profile universities fared well, as did most of the flagship state universities. I was taken aback at the low graduation rate (< 50%) for a lot of schools, including some that are relatively expensive. Some of my thoughts on this general problem include:
  • The increasing number of administrators with the associated cost passed along to students: can the genie be put back in the bottle?
  • While not responsible for tuition inflation (at least it shouldn't), schools are increasingly competing using amenities. New dormitories have suites outfitted with kitchens, single rooms, air conditioning, etc. Obviously these increase the quality of student life, but it's also more expensive than 4 walls, a roommate and a bed frame with an institutional twin mattress. It's just going to cost more.
  • How can public universities become more affordable in a political climate where the trend is to cut state funding for higher education? States increasingly are ignoring the ROI of subsidizing residents' education (i.e. a short-term vs. a long-term mindset), and the shortfall has to come from somewhere. The student's pocket is the only logical option given the structure of the American higher education system.
  • The scorecard graduation numbers (dropout rates) don't always account for students who transferred. This is a clear weakness in the data.
  • The major gap in the data denounced by the President was the employment record for graduates. While I agree such information would be valuable for prospective students, has anyone tried to track where students go? I have a hard time keeping up with my former group members, and both departments I worked in have tried to collect data on former majors and Ph.D. students, but it's a Herculean task. Extrapolate that to an entire school. I doubt many alumni associations would be confident that their data is accurate or complete.
  • The President's underlying message seemed to be that government support would be tied to student performance (graduation, employment, etc). While an abysmal graduation rate may point toward issues, it could also indicate schools giving students a chance to explore college (especially those who lacked the academic record to be accepted elsewhere). Many students discover that college isn't the right choice for them, at least for now, and pursue other options. Should a college be penalized for providing an opportunity? This would seem to direct public support toward students who already have a high probability of getting a degree, but do nothing to help students on the margins of higher education. This is related to a point others have made that such a metric could incentivize retention of students who are ill-equipped (skills or motivation) for college success who might otherwise choose different careers.
The above thoughts as well as the commentary from others on the same issue, led me to do some superficial evaluation of how I contribute to the cost of a chemistry degree to students. Chemistry and other laboratory-intensive majors can stick students with hidden fees, but as far as I can ascertain my current employer doesn't, which is fair since the tuition/year currently sits at a lofty $42,000. Conversely, I'm pretty sure UConn did charge fees for laboratories, but the tuition was less than half that of WPI. So far so good.

So what is required for my classes? For labs, a notebook and some safety goggles. Both items are affordable, and notebooks may have been used in previous labs and should still have space for future use. For a lecture class, students are "required" to buy a textbook. I have been guilty of being unsympathetic to students complaining about the cost of textbooks in the past. Textbooks were expensive when I went to college, and we complained too. Why should today's students miss out on experiencing the collective suffering that binds classmates together? Buying textbooks was worth hours round table moaning and groaning before the stress of the semester began. It was a red badge of honor to have the most expensive required textbook.

The only problem is that the inflation of textbook prices has outpaced the inflation of just about everything (see graph in the linked article). I've become aware of the magnitude of the problem recently. I teach one of several general chemistry sections, and the textbook we  use recently came out with a new edition. The publisher essentially forced us to adopt the new edition since they can't (won't) provide the bookstore with the previous one. The publisher doesn't profit from the secondary market for used textbooks, and as a business they are obviously motivated to sell as many textbooks as possible. A side-by-side comparison of the two editions shows very few differences though . The problems at the end of the chapter have been changed and the cover is a different color. The latter is a minor aesthetic change, but the former makes the earlier edition unusable if an instructor plans to assign practice problems. Clearly there are workarounds for these changes, but the inconvenience factor favors the publisher in the long run. 

From a content standpoint, any general chemistry instructor could probably assign reading and teach from a textbook printed +30 years ago. What differences would there be? Today's periodic table includes more transuranium elements and some of the sidebars that bring in recent examples of chemistry applications would be out of date when using an old textbook, but the basic concepts haven't changed. There are very few new textbooks or revisions that propose seismic changes to the accepted general chemistry teaching dogma. So students are paying hundreds of dollars to get content available in a used bookstore or from the discarded bookstacks of a retiring professor. Certainly publishers should be able to make a profit, but why create a system that depends on exploiting students with inflated prices?

This year, our general chemistry instructors adopted an online homework system. Students are charged for this service as well, which can add up to another $100* depending on how many terms of the sequence they are taking. In the absence of a required textbook, online homework provides a solution to being held hostage by publishers, but if the textbook remains a requirement, it adds another straw to the camel's back of college costs. 

*I need to verify this

1 comment:

  1. Costs could be contained in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, none of them are likely to be implemented. "Competition" has led to increased spending on student amenities, administrators and star faculty's salaries, capital improvements that are often unnecessary, etc. In addition, bureaucratic bloat is out of hand. It's time for change, but I fear there are too many vested interests on the one side and too much complacency and division on the other.