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As the secretary of college affordability for the Illinois State University Student Government Association, Ross Vancil advocates for students on the issue of educational cost. Nevertheless, he’d never heard of the concept of differential tuition until ISU administrators briefed the SGA on the model, which the university’s board approved in late January.
That’s not surprising; the practice of differential tuition—requiring students in different classes, majors or academic years to pay more than baseline tuition—isn’t widely known. But it is a popular strategy for colleges nationwide to offset the costs of majors that require, say, specialized equipment, advanced labs or higher-than-average salaries for professors.
ISU is seeking to do just that. Starting next year, the university will raise the tuition price for students in several programs in the hopes of funding the top supplies, facilities and faculty in those areas.
To Vancil, whose majors—legal studies and political science—will not be impacted by the tuition differentials, the change makes perfect sense.
“Currently, the cost is subsidized by other programs that don’t use as much money,” he said. “By having differential tuition, those programs will be able to pay for themselves.”
Differential tuition has existed in some form or another since the 1970s, according to Casey E. George, an associate professor of higher education administration at the University of Louisville who studies the practice at public research universities. Historically, differential tuition has been applied to majors that are expensive to offer, such as engineering, business, nursing and computer science.
But that has changed over the years, George noted. At some institutions, students are being charged extra for majors that are not traditionally seen as costlier, like art. More and more colleges are also introducing tuition differentials for upperclassmen, which former Iowa State University president Steven Leath attributed to the “increasingly specialized coursework, learning opportunities, personalized instruction, smaller classes that you get as you proceed through your undergraduate education” when he proposed the model in 2016. Other colleges choose instead to impose sliding fees on students in different departments.
The additional costs can vary wildly. According to the Nevada System of Higher Education Procedures and Guidelines Manual, courses in the certified registered nurse anesthetists track in the doctor of nursing practice program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas will cost a whopping $800 more per credit than baseline tuition when the track launches in 2025. Meanwhile, students studying emergency management and homeland security at Truckee Meadows Community College, also in Nevada, have to pay a tuition differential of only $15 per credit.
“The idea of differential tuition has become increasingly complex over time,” George said. “It’s pretty amazing how complex some of the policies have gotten.”
At Illinois State, students who are majoring in nursing, business, cybersecurity or computer science will pay $462.52 per credit hour starting next fall, compared to the $402.19 that students in other departments pay. After ISU opens its new engineering college in 2025, students majoring in engineering will also pay higher tuition.
ISU’s acting provost, Ani Yazedjian, said that the revenue will help support the faculty salaries, facilities, equipment and technology that are necessary to create top-tier programs in those disciplines. ISU’s nursing school, for example, has a simulation lab that’s not big enough to accommodate all the students who apply; the revenue from their higher tuition rate will contribute to expanding that lab.
“[Differential tuition] allows us to give more students the opportunity to get that education that they’re already saying they want to get at ISU,” Yazedjian said.
Other universities that have implemented differential tuition have put the extra bucks toward similar goals. The University of Wisconsin at Madison began charging extra tuition to juniors and seniors studying business in 2007 and has since expanded the practice to engineering and nursing majors as well as underclassmen majoring in business.
According to Greg Bump, a spokesman for the university, “Program-specific tuition provides sustainable funding to programs within the respective schools, directly supporting expanded curricular offerings, additional faculty and instructors, as well as enhanced support services such as advising, career services and tutoring.”
The University of Nebraska at Omaha notes on its website that the differential tuition applied to business students is used to “hire new faculty members and business-specific advisers, add student support services and develop a new personal finance class.”
For all its popularity, differential tuition has its critics. When the ISU Board of Trustees debated the policy in late January, Trustee Scott Jenkins, strategy director for state policy at the Lumina Foundation, raised concerns about equity, worrying that the higher tuition prices would lock low-income students out of majors that typically lead to higher-paying careers.
“First-generation students, students of color, students with not a lot of social capital look at the sticker price, and sometimes that dissuades them from enrolling, and that leads to an impact on student choice. So specific majors being more expensive may cause students to enroll in different majors instead of challenging themselves and enrolling in those programs they could be successful in, simply over price,” he said at the meeting.
George, the differential tuition researcher, said she and her colleagues have long been interested in the question of whether differential tuition indeed causes students to shy away from more expensive majors. There is no publicly available information on the impact of differential tuition; databases like the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System rely on average tuition prices, which makes it difficult to gain a comprehensive view of the issue. However, analyzing just one university’s data, George and her team did find that Pell-eligible students were less likely to enroll in a major with a higher tuition rate than one that charged the standard tuition.
Some universities—including ISU—hope to circumvent this issue by putting a portion of the revenue from their tuition differentials into scholarships or financial aid. At ISU, Yazedjian said, 25 percent of the revenue will go toward financial aid.
George also said her team’s research has raised concerns about transparency in differential tuition. Not every college makes it clear that it charges different rates for different majors, hiding that information in footnotes and PDFs rather than featuring it in an obvious location on the institution’s financial aid webpage. Other colleges offer differential tuition by the credit hour, meaning it is nearly impossible for students to calculate four years’ worth of tuition without knowing exactly what classes they will take each semester.
In a randomized study, George and her colleagues found that high-income students had better success parsing highly complex information about differential tuition than their lower-income peers.
“Institutions can do a much better job being much more transparent about it and making sure prospective families have the information up front,” she said.
That transparency was the crux of the University of Missouri-Columbia’s new differential tuition policy, which launched last fall. The institution used to charge differential tuition by the credit hour, but last semester it implemented a new, tiered system, in which every major falls on one of three tiers, from most to least expensive. As long as students take between 12 and 18 credits, they pay the same rate per semester as anyone else taking a major on the same tier, regardless of what specific courses they take.
“We wanted to make sure students and their families had an accurate prediction of what tuition was going to cost them instead of having to go by a per-credit-hour fee,” said Christian Basi, director of public affairs for Mizzou.
The university also worked for about a year to prepare for the rollout, publishing press releases, social media posts and newsletters and holding personal meetings with students and families to explain the change. And Mizzou introduced a new tuition calculator, separate from the net price calculator required by federal law, so that students know the exact tuition price for their major.
“I can tell you that the parents I have spoken with have greatly appreciated the ease of understanding what tuition would cost them,” Basi said.
ISU’s strategy closely aligns with Mizzou’s, according to Chris Coplan, an ISU spokesman. In addition to setting up a website and calculator to communicate differential tuition, ISU will present information about it during admission events and campus visits and “include tuition and fee costs specific to their program in each student’s award letter (which clearly outline the difference between aid and cost), and Student Accounts and Financial Aid will have updated cost information on their website and portal.”