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An expensive education

Princeton isn’t exactly known for being cheap. It ranks among the top universities in the world — but at the same time, the cost of a Princeton education is equally high up on the list. The elevated costs wouldn’t be such a huge consideration, though, if it weren’t for the fact that Princeton students, on the whole, also receive fewer hours of instruction than students at other collegiate institutions, rendering the price of one hour of Princeton class time much more expensive than the price of an hour of class at other colleges.

If the semester here at Princeton feels short, that’s because, compared to most other universities in the United States, it is. While there is no authoritative data currently in academia to substantiate this claim, the numbers are quite self-evident. Universities that operate on the semester system — as Princeton does — can provide anywhere from 12 to 18 weeks of instruction per semester, but the majority of them offer 15 over the course of two terms, totaling 30 weeks in an academic year. Alternatively, schools that use the quarter system most frequently offer three terms of 10 weeks each, in the end totaling 30 weeks as well. However, Princeton’s academic calendar lies at the lower end of the spectrum, with only 12 weeks of classes per semester, or 24 weeks per academic year.

Besides having fewer weeks of instruction, the amount of time actually spent in class at Princeton is also less. For instance, at the University of California at Berkeley, Math 53, their equivalent of multivariable calculus, meets for three additional hour-long discussion sections on top of three hour-long lectures, meaning that this class effectively meets for six hours a week. At Princeton, in contrast, MAT 201: Multivariable Calculus, the analogous math class, only meets three times a week, effectively half the length of time.

The question inevitably arises — why is Princeton’s academic calendar different? Part of the reason may have to do with the fact that all faculty members are required to teach classes, regardless of whether they conduct research or not (at many other research institutions, professors who work in a laboratory are exempted from the need to actually teach a course), so mandating less time devoted to instruction may enable professors to better balance their academic research endeavors and teaching. Also, most instructors here offer flexible office hours outside of class time, indicating an academic culture that ostensibly places greater importance on self-responsibility of the students to get help when they need it. And, perhaps there may be a subconscious or subliminal belief that Princeton students simply learn faster.

While there is no clear single reason why Princeton’s calendar is so different, the discrepancy begs consideration — is such a difference detrimental? In one regard — a purely financial one — students can feel cheated, seeing themselves as the victims of a swindling conspiracy of sorts. After all, for a higher price, they are receiving fewer hours of actual attention from their professors. But at the same time, Princeton has plenty of other redeeming characteristics. For one, students are effectively paying for not only a world-class education, but also for a “name brand” diploma (after all, the appellation Princeton is recognized worldwide), which may very well offset the greater costs per class hour in the form of better reputation and resources. Recruiters regularly visit top colleges such as Princeton seeking to attract the attentions of promising students, and simply saying that you are from Princeton often nets you the respect and recognition of others.

In the end, the fewer actual weeks and hours of instruction that Princeton students receive has not in any significant way hindered the ability of seniors to move on to suitable jobs or higher education pursuits after graduation. Further, the higher cost per class hour can be arguably justifiable because of the other advantages that attending Princeton provides. Our system may indeed be unique — but then again, so is our school.

Jason Choe is a freshman from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He can be reached at jasonjc@princeton.edu.

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