Earlier today, I came across an article regarding a heated differential tuition debate at my university and couldn’t help but wonder why any decision makers could think about raising tuition for certain majors. After all, one of the primary stakeholders involved are the students themselves. Since I have a lot of debt to pay off over the next 10 years or so, I cannot imagine having to pay more just because I elected to pursue a certain major. Following my initial assumptions, I read the article and gained a better understanding on why this may be a necessary evil when it comes to certain majors.
What is differential tuition?
Differential tuition is the concept of having students in certain majors or classes pay extra money in addition to their tuition.
Why do some schools decide to implement this?
Many schools implement this in order to support and grow high-demand programs such as business, engineering, computer science, and nursing. These programs often cost more to run because they either require small-group mentoring by faculty and professors in such programs command higher salaries. Other reasons for variable tuition would be to increase faculty retention rates or cover the cost of certain enhancements for the learning experience of students in such programs. These include extra sections of overfull courses, new computers and equipment, and even extra lecturers to teach classes. Due to technological obsolescence, funding is required to provide relevant education that prepares students for entering the workforce. Equipment, laboratories, computers, software, and other advancing technologies constantly need to be updated in institutions in order to provide students with a relevant learning experience.
Another argument that advocates of differential tuition make is that graduates of those programs tend to have higher employment rates and starting salaries. These proponents reason that debt burden should be shared proportionally across all majors. Some see differential tuition strictly as a way to generate additional revenue, which can be used to fund those programs and support other departments’ needs. Others see differential tuition simply as a way to offset higher costs associated with participating programs.
What are the possible implications of implementing differential tuition?
Say an institution does decide to implement differential tuition as a way to attract and maintain talented faculty in certain programs. One implication of this would be that other programs also struggling with this issue, albeit not as heavily, will remain disadvantaged. If an institution decides not to partake in differential tuition and continue offering the same starting salary that they did, say, five years ago, talented faculty prospects may elect to accept an offer from a competing university that offers a more lucrative salary. As a result, the competing institution will offer its students a supposed pool of higher quality professors while the other institution falls behind. On the other hand, a gap in salaries already exists between certain majors at many institutions. As a hypothetical example, an English professor who taught at an institution for 10 years still doesn’t make as much as a new hire at a business school. Putting differential tuition in effect would increase that gap even more and undermine certain subjects over others. By setting the price higher for some majors, institutions are unintentionally conveying to students that some majors are more valuable than others. If an institution’s mission is to maintain the comprehensive quality of all programs, yet some majors are seen as more valuable, the topic of differential tuition becomes all the more controversial. Another option could be to raise tuition for all students and allocate the additional revenue to departments in need. Differential tuition just might be a necessary evil. Nevertheless, it has, and will continue to, cause cynicism and low morale amongst faculty and students.