Disciplines Matter

Administrators are urged to pay more attention to differentials in expenses of various departments.
July 27, 2005

In the world of college budgets, all departments are not created equal.

That was the message of Michael F. Middaugh, the incoming president of the Society for College and University Planning, in a talk to members of the group Tuesday at their annual meeting, in Washington. Middaugh, assistant vice president for institutional research and planning at the University of Delaware, runs a long-term research project there that examines costs of departments at more than 500 four-year colleges and universities.

Understanding those data, he said, are essential if colleges are going to promote a more sophisticated public understanding of why college costs what it does and why tuition levels are what they are. And right now, he added, colleges do "a horrible job" of explaining these issues to the public and to politicians.

Middaugh said that, prior to gathering data from hundreds of colleges, he assumed the key factors in considering why some colleges require more funds than others were institutional classifications -- public or private, Ph.D.-granting or bachelor's only, etc. But in fact, he said, the top factor in determining college costs (meaning what it costs to run a college, no college prices, which are what students pay) is the breakdown of disciplines and their relative popularity. He said, for example, that his institution and Brandeis University have a similar split of undergraduate and graduate programs, but Delaware is more expensive to run because its programs are in the sciences, while Brandeis has more strength in the humanities and social sciences.

While the high cost of science research is no surprise to anyone on campuses these days, Middaugh has also analyzed the costs that can be attributed directly to instruction, and he found notable differentials among disciplines.

For example, during the 2001 academic year, the average instructional expense per student credit hour for a sociology course was $124, while the average for mechanical engineering was $379. At the baccalaureate level, chemistry came in at $242 per student per credit hour, while English came in at $132.

Not only are the instructional costs significantly different by department, he said, but they are growing at different rates. Among comprehensive colleges and universities, he said, his data show that expenses for computer science departments increased by 32.1 percent between 2000 and 2003. Biological sciences departments saw an increase of 15.4 percent. Other fields, however, saw their average costs per student go down during that period -- philosophy by 5.2 percent, and political science by 3.5 percent, for example.

Given that the top item in instructional expenses is salaries, Middaugh said that these data show that the choices colleges make about class size, number of courses professors teach, and other policies can have a huge impact on college budgets. "Institutions should not shrink from these choices," Middaugh said.

But he also warned that "cost containment zealots" could use these figures to make foolish suggestions, such as eliminating some departments or requiring faculty members to shift all of their time from research to teaching. So he said that it was important for these choices to be made in a way that reflects college missions and the non-instructional roles of faculty members.

Before trying to shift their time, he said, officials must ask if they are "willing to give up" the other functions they perform.


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