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One day in class this past spring semester, I finished three minutes early. That was a rare occurrence for me. I always use every minute available in class, as I only see my students a few days a week and I truly value our time together. Also, students pay a lot of money in tuition, and I don’t want to waste it.
In fact, that last thought got me wondering: Exactly how much money did I just waste by ending class three minutes early?
I decided it was time to do some math. The following calculation is based on the average in-state, public university tuition and fees for the 2022–23 academic year, which is $10,423, according to U.S. News & World Report. I acknowledge two caveats with using this amount. First, students may, of course, pay more or less than this average. There are other costs of attending college—like room and board, books, and supplies—and some may have scholarships, for example. But to make this simple, let’s just stick with this average tuition and fees.
Second, we all know that tuition and fees pay for much more than classroom instruction time—administration, research, utilities, facilities and so on—and that students partake in all sorts of other activities at their institutions. Thus, the forthcoming calculation isn’t a totally realistic reflection of what students are spending on attending a single class. But it can give us a rough sense of the cost.
For this oversimplified calculation, then, let’s assume that a typical college student takes 15 credits a semester, which come from five three-credit classes—so 10 total classes per year. Also, we’ll assume that each class meets three times a week, 50 minutes at a time, for 15 weeks during the semester. With all of that in mind, I calculated that it costs 46 cents per minute of instructional time, or $23 per 50-minute class. For out-of-state students, where the average tuition is higher, it comes out to be $1.02 per minute for the average public university and a whopping $1.76 per minute for the average private institution.
At my particular institution, in-state students covering full tuition and fees pay a good bit more than average: 89 cents per minute. So by ending class early and wasting three minutes for a class of 45 students, that comes out to as much as $120 in total wasted tuition dollars.
That might not be news to you, as we all know college is expensive, and it sure isn’t getting any cheaper. But this calculation really shook me, as not only did I do something wasteful by ending class early, I also thought about all of the times I’ve heard from students about how boring a certain class is and how it is worthless to even attend—which is basically like lighting money on fire.
To use this information in a positive way, we need to address the perspectives of two stakeholders: the instructor and the student.
Let’s start with the instructor side of things. As a college STEM instructor for the past 10-plus years, I have always used evidence-based teaching and course design strategies, including active learning and high-structure course design, both of which have been shown to improve student performance and reduce gaps in grades in a variety of disciplines. However, seeing the dollar amount that students pay for class has sparked me to up my game and use evidence-based strategies even more. Students are simply paying too much for us as instructors to mail it in with a boring lecture or poorly designed lesson plan. (Believe me, I’ve done this before, and it never feels good.) We need to make class not only more engaging but also use techniques that have been demonstrated to improve student learning, increase feelings of belongingness and yield increased passing rates and persistence. We need to justify not only our own paychecks but also the high costs that students are paying.
Now, let’s go to the student side of things. Students probably have loans, are paying for college by working a job on the side or are fortunate to have financial support from their family. But no matter how a student is paying for college, the key is that they are paying for college somehow, and it costs real money to attend classes. If students know this average cost of attending a class, or better yet, they calculate it based on their own personal situation, it may make them more engaged and responsible about participating fully in class, which will benefit their own performance, attitudes and outcomes. Students may think twice about playing Wordle for the entirety of a 50-minute class, as that will cost them $23. Or they might consider whether watching a few episodes of Love Is Blind on Netflix during a 75-minute class is worth $35. It probably isn’t, but paying attention, participating in activities and asking questions are worth it
I don’t know about you, but I am going to use this information to try to catalyze my fellow instructors and colleagues as well as my students to make better use of our time spent together in the classroom. I plan to share it at the start of my classes this fall to see if makes a difference in student attitudes and behaviors. Those of us who are faculty members can also try out some brief but powerful active learning activities, such as think-pair-share, small group work or problem solving, drawing exercises, or having students critique supposed “correct” answers by ChatGPT. If feeling a bit more adventurous, we can try adopting a personal response system (i.e., clickers) to assess student learning in real-time or find a case study to present our class content in a more engaging way.
We should also help our students by making sure they turn their notifications off, put their phones away and truly focus on the classroom experience. We should encourage them to participate in all activities, talk to their classmates when asked to do so, answer all questions to the best of their ability, take notes (and draw a star, unicorn, tree or some other picture in their notes when something doesn’t make sense so they can seek clarification on it) and, by all means, ask questions!
We should conduct all of these activities and encourage these behaviors in not just in-person classes but also in online, remote or hybrid classes, where it is even easier to be less engaging as instructors and more distracted as students—and thus waste tuition dollars.
I challenge you to do this calculation for your own classes and to share the dollar amount with your colleagues, administrators and students. Change can be hard, but from my own experience, putting a dollar amount on things helps make that change happen more readily. Is the insulation in the windows in your house or apartment poor, so your heating bill skyrockets in the winter? I bet you’ll make a change there. Make a change in your classes for the betterment of your students, too.