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Should Engineering Students Pay More Than English Majors for Their Degrees?

A new survey shows that "differential tuition" programs are increasing in popularity.

Should an engineering student pay more for her degree than an English major? For generations, colleges have charged students the same tuition regardless of the courses they take. But according to a new survey by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, schools are beginning to charge different tuition prices in different departments.

CHERI researchers found that 143 public colleges and universities now have some form of differential tuition—in other words, charging more by major, college, or year enrolled. Twenty-nine percent of the 126 undergraduate programs surveyed offer differential rates, plus 41 percent of doctoral programs.

Business, engineering and nursing students are most likely to be charged more under differential tuition plans. The University of Maine, for example, adds an extra $75 fee for each engineering course. Nursing students at the University of Kentucky have to pony up a $460 per semester "program fee"—a 10.7 increase over the $4,305 students in other majors pay for regular in-state tuition. Advocates justify the practice by noting that engineering and nursing graduates typically earn higher starting salaries than their classmates with English degrees, so the extra dollars they pay for their diplomas will be worth it in the long run.

More than one-fifth of schools surveyed also charge differential tuition depending on year of enrollment. Since most juniors and seniors aren’t taking large lecture classes, schools pass on the costs of additional faculty and classroom space to them through fees for upper-level courses. But as institutions come under pressure to boost the number of graduates, making it more expensive for upperclassmen to take the classes they need to finish their degrees seems like a shortsighted decision.

Because differential tuition is a new trend, there hasn’t been much research on its long-term impact. But it's not a stretch to believe that having to pay more for certain majors might influence what students choose to study. If you're struggling to make tuition payments every semester, switching to a less-expensive major could start to seem like a sensible decision. And because the more expensive majors skew toward critical STEM fields, that could mean very bad news for America's future.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar

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