This is the question being considered by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and it could mark a new, potentially problematic trend in higher education. Under this system of “differential tuition,” schools can charge a students a tuition rate based off their major. For Nebraska, the plan would allow a much higher rate of tuition for engineers than the standard rate of $198.25 per credit hour all students pay.
Other schools have already begun such tuition programs. According to the Omaha World Herald, 57% of 162 public research universities employ some form of differential tuition. In 2008, Glen Nelson studied the practice and found that business students pay 14% more tuition and engineers 15% more than average. Many schools require special lab fees for certain classes, or higher tuition rates for upperclassmen taking more challenging courses. Charging by individual major is somewhat different, as it is not tied to specific courses or seniority.
There exist some reasons for a school to consider such a plan. Many science-based majors require special facilities and top-level talent to teach. Also, many institutions of higher education have faced economic strife the cost of facilities and fewer federal dollars supporting them. To some public institutions, differential tuition plans could be an alternative to privatizing or bankruptcy. Or in far less dire situations, these tuition tiers are sometimes can be used simply to serve more students without raising rates across the board.
But a comment made by regent Chuck Hassebrook, a member of the university’s board of academic affairs committee, does give some pause for thought. From the World Herald:
“Differential tuition is an alternative … for fields of studies where students will have strong earnings and the capacity to take on more debt, or where there’s a special case for investing more in a particular field,” Hassebrook said.
This is an odd way of looking at the situation. It is effectively requiring students to borrow against their futures — something many are already asked to do with student loans — based off their future money-making potential. It’s an especially odd sentiment since the proposal facing Nebraska-Lincoln seems centered on the school of engineering. It’s certainly plausible that given the U.S.’ dire need for more homegrown STEM talent — science, technology, mathematics, and engineering — imposing higher tuition fees on these somewhat more lucrative fields could have the negative effect of discouraging students from specializing in that which is most needed by society as a whole.
It’s also rather onerous to claim that a student’s potential future should determine their present financial situation. What if an engineer with a degree decides to become a poet, or a stay at home parent? Is he or she entitled to a refund on the “strong earnings” that could have been? Hopefully, in the case of Nebraska at least, the regents will follow the advice of their chief budget officer Patrice Sayre, who told the World Herald:
“It has to be something very specific why they want to increase [tuition] — it’s never just that these people will make more money when they get out of college,” she said. “It has to be more than that.”
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