Stamatakis: Calculating the value of class

By Nick Stamatakis

School’s starting again — get your calculators out. Just because this is the student newspaper doesn’t mean I can’t contribute to your education. School’s starting again — get your calculators out. Just because this is the student newspaper doesn’t mean I can’t contribute to your education.

Take your effective semester tuition, divide it by how many classes you have, and then divide it by 15, the number of weeks in a semester sans finals. If we pretend that tuition only funds lectures (this is only an exercise) what you will roughly end up with is how much you are spending for a week in a certain class.

If you are a Pennsylvania native enrolled in a standard three-lectures-a-week class with a standard 15-credit course load, you are paying a bit more than 30 bucks for each lecture.

With this economic equivalent in mind, you can see how much you are “losing” by not going to a lecture.

Sleep through Intro to Macroeconomics, and you’ve lost 30 dollars — or about five $6.79 steak burritos from Chipotle. A hangover through two Friday classes would cost you 17 $3.52 Bic Mac sandwiches. And blowing off five Monday classes for a skip in the park would cost you about 12 $11.95 Market Central swipes.

While the comparison is grounded in a simplification, I personally have found breaking down lecture time into a food-cost comparison has proven to be the most effective way to make good life decisions about whether to go to class. If my payoff for skipping will be greater than the monetary equivalent of 30 packages of Fun Dip, I elect to not go. More often, the reasoning results in the good decision to go to class.

The idea of breaking down abstract goods like class and education into more concrete goods, like 15 bags of Wonder Bread, helps to move us from relative thinking to absolute thinking. Relative thinking is the reason why people will drive across town to save $5 on a $10 sandwich but won’t drive across town to save $5 on a $100 toaster. Because we perceive gains and losses in percentages — relative gains and losses — we will suboptimally decline to travel for the toaster, ignoring the fact that in both cases, we will be $5 richer and happier. Relative thinking can accordingly lead to bad decisions.

Relative thinking is especially dangerous because, generally speaking, it encourages people to overvalue things in cheap settings and undervalue things in expensive settings, according to Ofer H. Azar of the University of the Negev in Israel in a 2008 paper. Education, with its large price tag, is one thing that can consequently become quite undervalued.

When the decision is between sleeping through a class and going to it, a relative thinker will not grasp the magnitude of the loss. Sleeping through one class a week, or 6 percent of all classes, isn’t that big of a deal. But thinking absolutely with a $30 class benchmark, one skipped class a week costs 150 $5.99 Five Guys burgers a year.

So, skipping one class a week, theoretically at least, is the same as throwing away 150 burgers. This makes the decision to skip a lot less attractive. And if you are an out-of-stater paying higher rates, the difference is even more dramatic.

As mentioned, my Theory of Food and Learning Equivalency is largely fanciful. For one, we don’t pay our tuition to get minutes of lecture, but for the knowledge and future earnings we will get from that lecture. For another thing, our return on our investment arguably isn’t even affected by our attendance in Intro to Cultural Anthropology or Creative Writing. Plus, when we pay our tuition at the beginning of the year, we have already paid our roughly 1,750 Five Guys trips. The cost is sunk, and our attendance has no effect on that fact. Finally, even though we pay $30 per lecture, the actual value of a lecture might be far greater or far less..

This is why I would never argue this theory as fact. The $30 benchmark just helps me to get my money’s worth from the University. It just becomes a convenient way to think about a class in more economic terms when I know actual attendance might not be particularly beneficial. If my alternative is less enjoyable than 120 gumballs, then I might as well go to class. If my alternative is more enjoyable than 120 gumballs, then I probably won’t go.

So for the 2011-12 school year, consider thinking more about food before you hit the snooze button for the eighth time.