The (Hidden) Cost of Higher Education

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Anyone who pays attention to politics or the news will have undoubtedly heard plenty about the rising costs of higher education.  Tuition keeps going up, up, up and yet our students still struggle to land jobs upon graduation.  Surely, that's a problem - why keep paying more for something that won't even ensure you have a job at the end to show for you hard spent cash?  I suppose that is, in part, what has led to the rise of online classes (and more recently, free online classes).

Now, the merits of tuition raises and college preparation for the job market can be (and have been) debated by plenty of others.  Since I work at a small liberal arts college (and I have no say in terms of things like the college's budget), I like to focus on things that I can have some input on - namely, the hidden costs of higher education.

What are the hidden costs?

  • Books
  • Graphing calculators
  • Printing costs
  • Software costs

And those are just to name a few - certainly the four biggest costs for a potential mathematics, physics, biology, or chemistry student.

How do I help my students minimize their hidden costs?  This coming fall I'll be teaching two sections of Calculus I and one section of The Mathematics of Games and Gambling.  For the gambling class, I do require a textbook but it sells at the campus bookstore for about $40.  Sure, that is still probably $20 too much but at least it's less than fifty bucks.

For my Calculus class, I have decided to forgo a textbook entirely.  On the first day of classes, I'm going to tell my students that they can get virtually any calculus book (late transcendentals) and it should (more or less) follow along with my lectures and homework.  The downside for me is that I have to write all my own homework assignments (complete with answer keys and hints).  Still, I consider that part of my job - and I have a feeling my students (and their parents) will appreciate all my work.

As for the other hidden costs, well, they are a bit trickier.  Actually, the second one isn't hard at all - not only do I not require a graphing calculator, I don't allow them to be used.  I'd much rather have my students know how to graph y = (x + 2)^2 than use a graphing calculator to get the exact graph of y = (2.3x - 3.8)^2.  Sure, in theory the students should be able to graph the second equation, but why?  Keep it simple I say - it's more important to work on intuition, observation, and determination!

My other beef with graphing calculators?  Their costs haven't dropped.

Why can get a Samsung Galaxy S3 (or even an S4) smart phone for under $100 but I can't get a TI-84 graphing calculator for that price?  Why can I buy a brand new WiiU video game system for $299 but a calculator that's essentially over a decade old still costs me over a third of a new HD gaming system?

One reason:  College.

It's a hidden cost.  Each professor that requires a graphing calculator forces students to buy said devices.  Since there are tons of classes that require TI-somethings, Texas Instruments gets to keep the costs of their device artificially high.  For all the grief that textbook companies get, it hardly seems fair that Texas Instruments gets a free pass.  They are clearly just as guilty.

In the end, the only way for the cost of education to go down will be for more professors to take proactive steps to reduce hidden costs for their students.  As more professors move to cheaper (or even free) options for their students, more and more schools will begin to follow suit.  After all, if all a student's professors provide printed handouts (saving the students printing costs), the schools will eventually have to stop charging so much for printing fees (or else start charging professors I suppose).  Unfortunately, I'm guessing I'll get charged for my printing way before my students ever see a discount.

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