Money-Mortar-BoardI’m still obsessing a bit over the cost of graduate education. Not the tuition price charged to students that most everybody else is obsessing over, but rather the cost to the university of producing a graduate with an advanced degree. My general hypothesis is that we’d be surprised to know just how much it costs to produce graduates with advanced degrees, and that this cost will often bear little relationship to the level of tuition and fees charged to students.

To know this cost is not trivial. Imagine a typical non-profit university as a bucket that is filled up through a variety of revenue streams from tuition, to research grants, to donations and endowment income, auxiliary enterprises (ie, hospitals, clinics & athletics programs), and federal and sometimes state support. All of this revenue then pays for all that a university achieves throughout the year, which includes but is not limited to educating graduate students. Instructional spending is also reported, but that actually allocated to graduate students is far less clear.

A while back, using a simple aggregate method and some unusual but reasonable assumptions arguing that, in fact, research dollars pay for all the master’s and doctoral graduates, I calculated that the typical graduate degree costs a university $80,000 to award. Another way to estimate this cost is to fractionate university expenses reported to the federal government that are related to education, accounting for the weight of graduate enrollment and award rates. More on that project in a later post.

As one gets into this mindset it is easy to begin thinking that not all advanced degrees are equivalent, that some must be much more expensive to produce than others. You can imagine a much lower cost to award a 1 year master’s degree to a tuition-paying student than that for a stipend-munching multi-year doctorate.

Here are some (back of the envelope) calculations I’ve derived for what it costs a university to produce what is likely to be one of the more expensive degrees to produce, the dual MD-PhD degree, which is a signature for a clinical scientist.

The typical MD-PhD dual degree recipient spends 8 years in university residence, 4 spent in medical training and 4 more in research training. In exchange for that time, the institution agrees to waive all costs of training and research, while providing the student a living stipend.

The cost of education differs for each period mostly because the academic physicians who train students during their medical education are paid more than PhD faculty who train students during their research period. For the cost of medical education, I took the average of the cost of instruction + cost of student services + cost of academic support per enrolled student at about 18 institutions that are solely medical schools–throwing out the three highs ($178,000 per student per year!!) and three lows ($10,000 per student per year!!). For the cost of PhD education, I took a value near the median cost of graduate education per enrolled student, just as above, but used spending at high research universities as a benchmarks.

All MD-PhD students receive a stipend each year of the full 8 year period, and all have their tuition waived (which is a lost opportunity cost for the university…those seats could be filled otherwise by paying customers). The research actually conducted by any doctoral student also costs money (a bit more than $2000/month for a good round average, born of personal experience and a few chats in the hallway). Finally, I’m using private university tuition costs in order to inflate the numbers, thereby justifying a very catchy blog article title. But don’t be confused, the cost of public university MD-PhD’s are not likely to vary too far from the overall number for a private school…they are no great bargain either.

  • 8 years stipend @ $30,000/yr = $240,000
  • 4 years of waived medical school tuition @$50,000/yr = $200,000
  • 4 years of waived graduate school tuition @$35,000/yr = $140,000
  • 4 years of cost of medical education @$50,000/yr = $200,000
  • 4 years of cost of PhD education @$30,000/yr = $120,000
  • 4 years of cost of PhD research effort @$27,000/yr = $108,000

That all sums up to about $1,008,000 for one degree holder, or let’s just round it to a million dollars for a simple-to-remember number. And the US is currently producing just under 600 MD-PhD graduates each year, or over half a billion dollars for less than 10% of all biomedical doctoral degrees awarded. That’s a healthy slice of pie.

This is an extraordinary level of investment borne by the government and the institutions for a fairly unique type of researcher. This cost implies that universities should invest an extraordinary level of care in finding and selecting the individuals who receive these expensive studentships. They should be exceedingly cautious to prevent filling these seats with individuals unlikely to have successful careers…which can be a very difficult judgment to make.

My strong advice to the MD-PhD applicants hitting the interview circuit this fall is be prepared to justify for the admissions committee why the university and society should invest at such a high level in your clinical research career. In what ways have you excelled to a level  high enough to claim one of these seats? What assurances can you give that your future career will provide a return on this investment?