The Rise of Differential Tuition

In public higher education, growing number of institutions charge based on major or class year.

February 21, 2012

A longstanding tradition in American higher education -- that undergraduates are charged the same tuition, regardless of major -- is eroding, especially at doctoral universities.

That is the finding of a new survey by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. Researchers checked the websites of every public institution that awards bachelor's degrees, and then surveyed some of the institutions identified as having differential rates. A total of 143 public colleges or universities were found to now have differential tuition policies. That figure includes 29 percent of bachelor's institutions, 11 percent of master's institutions, and 41 percent of doctoral institutions.

When further analyzing the doctoral institutions, the institute found that a slight majority of flagship universities now have differential rates.

Up until 1980, differential tuition rates within an institution were largely unheard-of, although some colleges did charge laboratory fees associated with certain courses. As state appropriations failed to keep up with growing enrollments and higher education expenses, many public institutions started to charge more for certain programs, arguing either that they cost more to offer, that student demand was greater or that students in these fields were on a track to better-paying jobs than were those studying other fields. But the policies have sometimes been controversial, as some educators have argued that students should be encouraged to pick fields based on their academic interests, not the price tag.

Other findings of the new survey include the following:

  • At doctoral and master's institutions, differential tuition is generally based on a student's field of study, but at bachelor's institutions, differential tuition is equally likely to be based on how far along students are in their programs (with juniors and seniors charged more than others, for example).
  • The most common majors facing extra charges are business, engineering and nursing.
  • Since public colleges and universities started to adopt variable tuition policies, the number doing so has gone up steadily, with no years from 1980 on showing a decline in the number of institutions with variable tuition.

The Cornell Institute's report does not take a stand on whether differential tuition is a sound policy. But it questions whether so many institutions should be embracing a policy about which relatively little is known (except that it seems to generate revenue).

"The process by which differential tuition policies have arisen and been have spread across American public higher education institutions has not been examined," the report says. "Neither has there been any research on the possible consequences of differential tuition policies. For example, does differential tuition by major influence students’ choice of majors? Do higher tuition levels for upper-level students affect students’ persistence and graduation rates? If such effects exist, are they larger for students from lower-income families and how do such effects interact with state and institutional financial aid policies?"


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