A growing share of the nation’s public research universities charge varying amounts of tuition for different academic programs, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. While these pricing policies have “kept some expensive programs in the black,” they also have introduced financial complexity and increased costs—barriers that may inadvertently discourage low-income students from pursuing certain majors such as engineering or business.
In a 2016 study, Glen Nelson, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and co-founder of the Affordability and Transparency Initiative at New York University, and colleagues reviewed tuition rates posted on the websites of public universities. They found that nearly 52 percent of the nation’s public research universities used differential tuition, up from 5 percent in 1991.
Premiums may steer minority, low-income students away from lucrative fields
Differential tuition has become more popular as state spending on higher education lags behind enrollment increases, and some university leaders say it would be difficult to sustain revenues without the approach. Nelson, however, points to the policies’ “unintended consequence” of introducing barriers for low-income students.
“Students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds are more sensitive to increases in college costs,” Nelson’s study states, adding that those students also are “less responsive to financial aid, such that tuition increases have a more negative influence on their college enrollment and attendance decisions.”
Moreover, majors associated with especially lucrative fields often carry the heftiest tuition charges. The Chronicle cites a 2016 study that examined differential tuition policies at Texas universities and found that “price increases were particularly large…for programs with a high earnings premium.”