The cost of a unit of instruction differs markedly by discipline in US higher education, according to research by Kevin Stange and colleagues, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Warwick in April 2019.

A course of electrical engineering, for example, costs twice as much as one for English while mathematics is about 22% cheaper. In general, pre-professional fields, such as business and accounting, along with fields that typically command higher earnings, such as engineering and nursing, are more costly to teach.

The new study provides a comprehensive overview of the costs associated with teaching across 20 fields based on a large and diverse sample of four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Differences in class sizes and faculty salaries tend to explain most of the difference in costs across fields. Online education does not seem to be a successful strategy for reducing costs.

Detailed information on instructional costs in higher education has been historically difficult to obtain, especially across disciplines. Discipline-specific costs have implications for policies such as differential tuition, budget allocation models and initiatives that encourage students towards certain fields.

What’s more, as the price of college continues to rise alongside falling state support for public institutions of higher education, students and families bear a growing share of the costs of college. Concerns about the affordability of higher education have led to calls for creative thinking about ways to temper rising costs.

At the same time, demand for increased training in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and policies that push students toward such fields abound.


What explains the variation in costs across fields?

Differences in class sizes and faculty salaries tend to explain most of the difference in costs across fields. Though average salaries are higher for economics faculty than English faculty, class sizes in economics are substantially larger than in English, resulting in costs of instruction that are slightly lower in economics than English.

Business and accounting faculty also earn more relative to English, but the larger class sizes in these fields only partially offset those salary differences. Faculty workload and non-personnel expenses generally play minor roles in explaining cost differences across fields.


What can we learn about trends in instructional costs over time?

In contrast to the narrative of soaring prices, inflation-adjusted instructional costs have remained relatively flat over the past decade and a half. But this average trend obscures variation by field.

Costs for many STEM fields, such as mechanical engineering, chemistry, biology and nursing, declined over the period, as class sizes and faculty teaching loads increased, and as contingent faculty became more prevalent. Costs increased for many fields in the social sciences and for pre-professional programmes, reflecting reductions in class size and higher salaries (most pronounced in accounting, economics and business).

The adoption of online education has commanded sustained interest from policy-makers and institutional leaders as a cost-saving innovation. But this study finds that the take-up of online education remains relatively low; only about half of programmes offer any online instruction and the share online is low among those that do. Regardless, the intensity of online education has a very weak association with average instructional costs.



This work has at least three implications for policy:


  • First, any large push to expand investment in STEM fields will be more costly than we think, as these fields tend to be more expensive than average.
  • Second, governments may consider differential pricing by field or tying state funding to the production of more costly fields in order to generate the resources needed by costly fields.
  • Finally, cost containment must recognise the important differences across fields and online education does not appear to be a successful strategy for reducing higher education costs.


Why is Math Cheaper than English (in the US)? Understanding Cost Differences in Higher Education by Steven Hemelt, Kevin Stange, Fernando Furquim, Andrew Simon and John Sawyer


Kevin Stange

Associate Professor of Public Policy at University of Michigan

Steven Hemelt

Assistant Professor of Public Policy at University of North Carolina