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by Phil Stott | January 23, 2017


The cost of a college education is a topic that very few people are agnostic about: almost everyone you talk to thinks that the price is too high already, knows that it is probably only going to continue getting more expensive in future, and has no idea what can be done to curb it.

Further, almost everyone knows that some degrees—especially in fields related to business and engineering—are more lucrative than others, because the skills they equip students with are relatively more scarce and therefore in higher demand in the economy.

But did you know that students in those fields are essentially being subsidized by other programs while they're in college? 

The reason, according to an article on Quartz, is as follows:

"At most universities, people pay the same tuition no matter what they study—and what students pay in tuition is less than what the university spend to educate them, no matter what they study. But universities spend different amounts on different degrees, and English and philosophy majors demand fewer resources—which means they essentially subsidize engineers."

One driver of that cost difference: the cost of hiring faculty. Because industry salaries for people with engineering degrees are so high, colleges have to compete to for that talent by offering salaries that English or history professors can only dream about.

The difference in cost is reflected in this chart, from the same article (note that the information displayed is the cost of providing the education):


This chart, meanwhile, from a 2014 study by the Brookings Institute, shows median lifetime earnings across a variety of majors. Note where the Engineering grads are clustered, compared to those with liberal arts backgrounds:

Earnings by Major 2014

So why aren't liberal arts majors up in arms over this, and demanding that their tuition is lowered, and that of the students in the more costly programs raised?

Partly, I'd wager, it's because they're unaware of the difference in cost to the colleges of different programs. And, partly, it's because the pricing has always been managed at an institutional level: college is a prix fixe menu, not a la carte. You're free to choose from the available options provided you pay the asking price, but you can't opt to save by skipping the appetizer or ordering a glass of water instead of wine.

It's an issue that goes to the heart of what college is for in the first place. As the Quartz article notes, "Charging by degree would change the nature of a college education. College in America is not intended to be vocational training; it’s also an opportunity to get exposure to different ideas and try different fields."

But, in a world where students with liberal arts backgrounds are often told that they're wasting their time and money getting degrees in their chosen fields (and by the very people who are benefiting from the cost imbalance), it's hard to look at this kind of data and wonder if the cost of obtaining a degree shouldn't be linked to the underlying cost of providing it.