And You Think Textbooks Cost a Lot Today

August 29, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

  • A manuscript hand-copied book back in 1000 cost roughly the same share of average annual income as $50,000 is today.
  • Hence if you have a "normal" college--eight semesters, four courses a semester--and demand that people buy and read one book a course, you are talking the equivalent of $1.6M in book outlay.
That's from a post at Brad DeLong' blog, and he provides this information about college expenses to look at the rationale for the large lecture. His point is that back in those early university days, the large lecture made economic sense.
  • Hence you assemble the hundred or so people who want to read Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy in a room, and have the professor read to them--hence lecture, lecturer, from the Latin lector, reader--while they frantically take notes because they are likely to never see a copy of that book again once they are out in the world administering justice in Wuerzburg or wherever...
But with books now so cheap (O.K., relatively affordable), why do we still have large lectures? The reasons must be non-economic -- i.e., social.

The full post and many of the comments (40 at last count) are worth reading.


Bad Runner said...

I didn't get a chance to go read all the comments on Brad's post, but I think the reasons are still largely economic--but rather from the university's point of view, rather than the individual student.

Suppose you are at a university that charges $35,000 per year for tuition. If you are on semesters and students typically take 5 course a semester (adjust all the numbers for your own school--it'll make the same point), that means each student pays about 3,500 per class. A lecture of 500 student brings a cool $1,750,000 into the university's coffers. A seminar of 10 students brings in $35,000. Graduate courses typically bring in nothing--or even negatives. Professors who teach a grad class and a small seminar aren't even producing their salaries that semester (to say nothing of all the other costs of running a university other that faculty salaries).

Bottom line: most universities cannot function fiscally without some bigger classes--those classes pay for the ability to have smaller ones. Some school try to avoid the big courses, but they either have to have major endowment payouts, or extremely high tuition costs, or extremely low salaries to make it work.

There are other reasons to have big classes, but to me, this is without an doubt the dominant one.

Jay Livingston said...

Dan, I know that's the economic logic, but even very wealthy schools like Harvard retain the big lecture format for courses when they could afford smaller formats. At Montclair State, which is by no means wealthy and does not have a high tuition, our union contract has most courses capped at 35. For large-demand courses, we have to offer several sections. How can we afford it? The same way that even big-lecture schools offer many small sections of English comp and foreign language courses: adjuncts.