Higher Education

The high cost of general education

Yes, it’s one of those recurring themes here. I was talking with a colleague yesterday; his daughter has gone through $92K at Yale in two years. I’m not sure if that’s the whole thing or what they had to fork over after financial aid. Not exactly a surprise, but… ouch! At Cortland, I’d say you’re looking at $15-16K/yr (approx $5,400 tuition, $5700 room, $3300 board, plus books and other fees), assuming your paying the whole load. Of course, nowadays they say the printed costs for a college are like the price sticker on a car lot: no one pays that.

I don’t know. My kids are 6 and 7. And god knows what this will costs in a decade. But that’s not exactly my point.

The Cortland GE program, basically like all the other SUNY schools and most other US colleges, is somewhere between 14-17 courses, depending on how much foreign language you need. So let’s say it’s easily three semesters of full time study. At Cortland, that’s a comparatively reasonable $22-24K. You can probably pay less at a community college, but we’re a good buy for a comprehensive college. In short, it’s only going up from there (and for those that are keeping track, I can expect to pay double that when my kids go unless something changes).

Like most faculty of my ilk, I teach my fair share of GE. I understand the value of GE in theory.

It’s just way too expensive! You could are that GE threatens the tenure system (doesn’t everything?). Because we can’t afford to have faculty deliver all this GE, we hire contingent faculty to do so. Even then, it’s still to expensive and getting more expensive all the time.

If you’re an academic parent with an elementary school kid, think about the following. You know your salary. Would you rather spend $120K to send your kid to the state university and have your kid spend three semesters sitting in classes with 50 or 100 or more peers listening to lectures, filling out test sheets or blue books (you know the drill.)? Or would you rather spend $75K and another $10-15K for your kid to take those GE classes online from home, maybe while still in HS?

Here’s the thing. We sent our daughter for one year to a Montessori school. Yes, it was better than the public school, but not $9K better. Is GE in a lecture hall going to be $30K better? You want to be able to pay for three semesters of GE or a year of grad school?

Yes, I’m assuming online courses will be cheaper. I’m assuming that by teaching students by the 1000s you’ll reduce costs. Faculty are giving lectures three hours a week. You’ve got prerecorded lectures and then a help desk with grad students or something. It’s honestly not that much different from sitting in a lecture hall.

Show me a different solution. No really. I’d like to hear one.


4 replies on “The high cost of general education”

I can say with all sincerity that I hate the GE system. The level of thought and interaction I get in my major/minor courses is above and beyond anything I encounter in a GE class. When a teacher asks a question in a GE class, everyone stares at her. It’s not that we don’t know the answer…it’s that we all know the answer, and we all know that we all know. The entire thing seems “busy.”
“Do something, even if it’s wrong.”
There are plenty of courses in the PWR major that I would have loved to take. But my time was monopolized by required courses which, while useful in the theoretical sense (as you said), did not apply to my actual personal interests or curiosities. There is a wonderful sense of cohesion and relevance with each PWR course–an interconnectedness that I’m just starting to notice and appreciate. This had quite a bit to do with my decision to stay another semester here at SUNY Cortland–there’s more I feel I need to do.
I like your solution just fine.


I think you ask an interesting question, but I don’t believe in two of your premises (of implications of your premises).
1. The expenses are a “sticker price” rather than an investment and
2. Different college experiences are comparable according to price.
Now, I would say that some of the GE stuff can/should be put online, OR…maybe they can be integrated into a larger experience. For example, rather than the “cafeteria” or “shopping mall” distribution of GE requirements, they should be packaged in diffrent “houses” (in the old Ivy sense), where you take the classes in a context. Linked courses could be one for a sample of the professions. Study abroad could be another “House.” “Virtual” could be another “House.” “Service Learning” could be another. I think the solution is not a Wal-Mart one so much as a Target or even Whole Foods one. People get their money’s worth on college if they are in to it (at least generally they do–100k nets 1m more in lifetime $$), but it is important to separate those who see it as an investment and give them options. That way, we can provide low bottom lines to those who want that and a variety of rich experiences to engage and launch a professional life.


I see what you mean. I agree that hypothetically college can be worth it, and you’re right that a college degree can be a long-term investment. But on the other hand, there are plenty of good investments I can’t make b/c I just can’t afford the up-front costs. In addition, it’s not the GE education that is the good investment; it’s the diploma that is a passport to a better salary.
I’m not opposed to getting a college education. It’s just that if it’s going to be so expensive, it had better be worth the money. Or, even better, it had better be cost effective.
It’s always been the case that you can pay a premium for a brand-name college experience and that you can usually get a return on that investment if you can afford the up-front costs. I’m not sure if it makes sense to go $100K+ in debt for an Ivy League BA when you might go to an in-state public research university and graduate debt-free. I just like the idea of having that choice.
At some point the cost-benefit has got to tip in the other direction. I fear we’ll be facing a situation where there will be a growing educational divide, just the opposite of what we need now. We’ll have to figure out some way to reduce costs.
You’re right that the danger is to Wal-Mart-ize education. We don’t want to do that. I’m not happy with the idea of 1000s of students watching online video lectures and showing up at a campus test center for the mid-term and final. I don’t think it’s much different from sitting in a lecture with hundreds of people though, which is what GE is often like. Even sitting in a class with 50 means having a purely passive learning experience.
Hmm… I think I need to raise something I’ll turn into a new post. Thanks for your thoughts.


College students could greatly benefit from working online. Those who already have full time jobs but need extra money on the side can easily work a few hours from home in their spare time. With some opportunities, it’s possible to continue earning money even if you’re not sitting at the computer. While a online home business takes time to set up , there is the potential for passive income.


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