Different Tution for Different Majors? Some Universities Look into the Possibilty

The flat rate of tuition could change if the university based tuition cost on a student’s academic major choice. Universities across the nation are adopting and exploring the idea of increasing tuition for some students, and decreasing it for others based on their major.

A survey published by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute in 2011 found that there are 143 public academic institutions with some form of differential tuition.

Molly Huber, a history and theater arts student, responded positively to the idea.“That would be fantastic, especially since I have a double major,” she said.

Other university students however are uncomfortable with the idea.

When introduced to the concept, Patricia Toomey, a sophomore criminal justice major said, “Absolutely not–I do not like the idea of basing tuition off of someone’s major, because I think that limiting students options based on tuition prices, and raising the price of one major over another and vice versa would make higher education unequal and unfair to students.”

Huber showed concern with the way in which a university might differentiate majors from one another. She said, “My only qualm with the idea would be how the university would distinguish how much a major is worth in comparison to each other.”

Others who were interviewed brought up similar concerns.

“Majors should be equally valued,” said Toomey. “Biologists and chemists are just as important as teachers.”

Robert Scott, an Associate Professor of Economics, was concerned with the approach universities might take in deciding the value of a major.

“I worry about who is making the decision to set the prices and what methodology they use.

“I’m all for finding ways to reduce the financial costs of college for students, but this doesn’t appear to accomplish that goal in a fair way,” Scott continued.

Nevertheless, some universities such as the University of South Carolina (USC), explain that their rationale for exploring the idea of varying tuition lays in the cost it takes to deliver a degree.

Last month the President of USC, Harris Pastides, discussed the idea of implementing differential tuition at a board meeting. He said, “Look at what it costs to deliver an engineering degree compared to a philosophy degree. Yet, these two students pay the same amount of tuition.”

 At the University many students labeled specific majors as ones they assumed might incur higher tuition rates if the university implemented this idea. “I think majors such as accounting, computer science, and any of the STEM majors would definitely be affected,” said Toomey.

Medha Dommaraju, a junior biology major, understood the rationale behind the idea, however, she still was not a fan of varying tuition costs. “I don’t think the university should impose that on everybody. I can understand the reasoning, because I know that some students use a lot more university resources than others,” she said.

“For example, I know that we [biology students] use a lot of materials that are expensive, so in that way changing tuition could make sense. Some of the materials we use are tens-of-thousands of dollars,” she continued.

“It is true that science courses are more expensive to run,” said Dorothy Lobo, the Co-Chair of the Biology department.

“The laboratory materials can be extremely costly. At Monmouth University, we do charge minimal laboratory fees, but from what we have monitored in the past year, these fees do not cover the cost of running the laboratory sessions and cause our department to have a very tight budget. Other schools that are proposing changes may be experiencing similar budgeting difficulties,” she continued.

Nevertheless, Lobo was skeptical of the effectiveness of varying tuition prices by major. “I am very surprised to hear this because majors change so frequently- it may be difficult to enforce,” said Lobo.

 Lobo is correct in her affirmation that university students are prone to changing their majors.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, college students change their major at least three times over the course of their college career.

 However, Scott feels that differentiating tuition might actually impact student’s ability to change majors. “I think the logic of the idea makes sense, but I would not support it because I would worry about it potentially limiting students’ choices,” he said.

Moreover, universities are also measuring the value of a student’s major through its salary potential. The greater the projected income a student could have with their degree, the higher their tuition cost.

However, some deduce that the use of differential tuition rates may have unsavory effects on low income students. “I think this policy would affect low-income students most by potentially limiting their choices, which is not a good thing. My fear is that low-income students would be forced into majors that offered lower expected earnings that could affect their future earnings. And from a non-financial standpoint all students should study what they like—not what they can afford,” said Scott.

Toomey agreed, “Students will definitely want to take on majors that are a lower price. But the ones that are more expensive that a student would normally want to pursue maybe their family won’t be able to support that if their family members are the ones paying for their college education,” she said.

Arline Giordan, a biology student already feels the effects of the current university’s price tag. She previously worked full time, and now that she is a student, finances are strained.

She said, “I am going to be 28, and I worked at a hair salon for almost ten years. At the salon I didn’t make that much money but going back to school, and not being able to work at the salon anymore is rough. So if tuition was raised because I am a biology major my life would be way more difficult than it is now.”

Overall, many individuals interviewed felt that the idea of differential tuition brings along various concerns.

“It would be a disservice to discourage students in any way from choosing a major that they love to study. College is the time to enjoy studying the major area you want to learn. A student’s performance usually suffers if he or she is being forced by outside pressure to be in a major, which is not of interest,” said Lobo.