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A growing number of colleges charge students higher tuition for engineering. What does this mean for low-income students and the future of U.S. technology?

Engineering students stand out from fellow students in other programs in a number of ways: high math scores, cool class projects, great job prospects. But on many campuses, they also have another, less desirable, distinction: higher tuition costs.

Thirty percent of the nation’s public research universities charge undergraduates a premium to major in engineering — a practice known as differential tuition — according to the first study ever to take a systematic look at the widespread and growing, but little discussed, phenomenon. The trend is driven by the failure or inability of state budgets to keep pace with rising higher-education costs and an attempt by schools to cover the costs of higher-paid faculty, labs and equipment in engineering.

“No one had any idea that this was as prevalent as it is,” says the study’s author, Glen R. Nelson, who made a survey of 165 public research universities nationwide for his May 2008 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s department of educational administration. That lack of knowledge is no accident, he believes. “It’s a politically charged question. That’s why there’s not a lot of research on it.”

Besides surprise, Nelson, now associate vice president for finance and administration at the University of Wisconsin system, expresses dismay at his findings. “The next major question,” he says, “is what’s the impact, particularly on the lower SES [socioeconomic status] students.” The potential fallout for financially strapped students is also “a source of great concern” for Richard W. Lariviere, provost and executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, which charges extra for engineering, among other fields. While the higher cost of engineering programs is widely cited as the reason for adopting tuition differentials, Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington, D.C., sees a special threat in the trend for technical fields. “From a policy standpoint,” he says, “it undermines where as a nation we really want to go.”

Engineering: Second Highest

Engineering is second only to business in the prevalence and size of tuition differentials, Nelson found in his thesis, Differential Tuition by Undergraduate Major: Its Use, Amount, and Impact at Public Research Universities. He received responses from 95, or 59 percent, of the institutions he queried and obtained information on the remainder from their websites. Nelson limited his study to public institutions both because differential tuition is much rarer in the private sector and because his ultimate concern is a policy issue: the effect on educational access for the disadvantaged, which is an explicit responsibility of public, but not private, universities. During academic year 2007-8, 48 of the universities he studied — or 65 percent of the campuses with any differential tuition — charged extra for undergraduate engineering, while 51 did so for business. The next most prevalent differentials were in nursing and architecture — where they are half as common as in business and engineering — followed by fields including education, sciences, fine arts, health professions, and computers. Some schools claiming not to charge differentials in fact impose fees with the same effect; Nelson counted them as having differential tuition.

“Differential tuition for engineers is a good idea—if the money is properly used…”

Weblog entry by Patrick McEwan, a student at the University of Wisconsin.

The differentials that engineering students pay ranged from 2 percent of base tuition at Utah State to 45 percent at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a mean of 15 percent — an amount that adds “a semester of cost” to a bachelor’s degree, Nelson notes. The extra cost for engineering ranged from $50 to $1,896 per term at the 23 campuses that charged by the semester, from $2 to $55 per credit hour at the 22 schools that charged by the credit, and from $25 to $44 a credit up to a maximum of $200 to $443 extra per term at the three that made a combined calculation.

The trend toward differentials has accelerated rapidly in recent years. They first were imposed more than two decades ago but in only five schools by 1988. Another 5 adopted them between 1988 and 1993, 8 more by 1998, and an additional 12 during the next five years. Twenty-five have added them since 2003.

Twenty-eight institutions reported, however, that their governing boards considered but did not adopt the idea — 25 of them between 2005 and 2007. Nearly a fifth of these boards expressed an interest in further discussion, but more than half turned the idea down because of possible effects on students, most notably the “potential for limiting access, limiting choice of major, and equity,” Nelson writes.

At the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, the differential comes to $4,152 per year. In an e-mail to Prism, Charles L. Tucker III, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the college of engineering, offered no apology, saying the university decided it was needed to keep Illinois in the top rank. “Besides allowing us to maintain a favorable student/faculty ratio, our differential tuition supports an engineering workstation laboratory that gives every engineering student access to professional-level computing workstations and engineering software,” he wrote. The higher price helps pay for two college-wide teaching labs as well as a lab for interdisciplinary senior design projects. Illinois B.S. graduates, on average, earn thousands of dollars more in starting salaries than the national average for most disciplines, he added.

Does experience bear out the fear that, in Nelson’s words, tuition differentials “channel low-income students away from potentially high-income fields?” Educators disagree, and no one has solid evidence.

Nelson’s survey and the subsequent interviews conducted with university officials produced no data showing an effect on enrollment, either overall or among low-income students. Yet he isn’t convinced: “They’re saying that there’s no impact or that they’re not sure if there’s an impact, but they’re basing their comments on anecdotal information.” Effects on access could be hidden because business, engineering and a number of the other programs have more applicants than they can accept. “The real question comes down to what’s the demographic makeup,” he says.

At the University of Kansas, the school of engineering has looked at differential pricing and is “unable to document that it is a factor” in students’ choice of program, Lariviere says. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t. We just don’t have evidence one way or another that it is. Students who have come in as freshmen and might ordinarily transfer into an engineering course but don’t — we have no way of knowing how frequently that happens. What we do know is that the socioeconomic distribution of students over time has not moved very much.”

Yet Lariviere’s own conversations with students do suggest that price drives at least some away from more expensive programs. “We know that students make remarkably careful decisions based on very small amounts of money,” he says, and at Kansas an engineering degree costs about $4,000 more than one in physics, chemistry, or math at the liberal arts college. “No student has said to me, ‘I’m not going to major in engineering,’ but they have told me they’ve chosen their major because it’s cheaper [and expressed] dismay that they can only afford to stay in this major rather than that major.”

Students from the poorest families feel this effect most strongly, says Nelson, citing research that shows that for first-generation, minority low-SES students, “sticker cost, the published cost of attendance, is a factor in deciding whether to attend college. If it impacts choice of whether to go to school, then you would think that it would impact choice of major.” Though no one has studied this question, Nelson intends to do so soon.

Bad for Science and Technology?

Differential tuition is “especially vexing” at a time of “all sorts of doomsday scenarios and all sorts of anxiety being expressed about the importance of science and engineering education,” Nassirian says. “These are difficult fields [that] require significant academic preparation.” As a nation we “shouldn’t be, on the one hand, spending billons of dollars to promote science and engineering education, and then have that undercut by institutional behavior.”

Not only does differential tuition raise a general obstacle to students deciding to study engineering, he explains, but it particularly undermines the national goal of recruiting more students from minorities traditionally underrepresented in engineering and science. Because technical fields require excellent high school preparation, they “tend to correlate very tightly to family income,” Nassirian says. “So when you create differential pricing, you’re actually hitting these particular disciplines where they hurt the most, namely in terms of under-representation.” Not only do low-income students often attend high schools that are less likely to provide high-quality preparation, but “by definition, needy people are more price sensitive,” so differential tuition hits them with “a double whammy,” he says.

The impact could be softened by dedicating part of the extra income generated by differential tuition to financial aid. “That is a theoretically attractive model, [but] we have not really seen it work out in practice over a sustained period of time,” Nassirian says. Nelson’s results thus far bear him out. “Only about a third of the schools had any of the incremental revenue going back to financial aid,” Nelson says.

The great bulk of the money, he reports, goes to the schools and departments that generate it. Yet Lariviere calls the argument that differential pricing is necessary to support higher costs “specious.” “It’s no more expensive to teach a business course than it is to teach an English course”— nor more expensive to teach engineering than physics or chemistry, he believes. “If [the higher salary] argument were to hold, then we would say, ‘This course here is being taught by the prize-winning faculty member, and it will cost you a thousand dollars [more than] this course over here being taught by a graduate student.’”

Instead, he says, differential tuition “is a way of raising tuition that’s politically tolerable. In my view, that’s all that this is. It’s politically tolerable because students are under the illusion — and it is an illusion — that if they major in [certain fields] they will make more money over the course of their career.” Yet studies show that though undergraduate majors strongly influence starting salaries at graduation, they have no effect on overall lifetime earnings.

Student reaction to differential tuition appears mixed. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Polygon Engineering Student Council, which represents the students in the engineering school, has twice voted strong support for a proposed plan to phase in a tuition differential that would eventually amount to $700 a semester. Patrick McEwan, a Wisconsin engineering undergraduate, wrote in a blog: “Differential tuition for engineers is a good idea — if the money is properly used….I am an engineering student and despite not wanting to pay those extra couple of hundred dollars a year, I think it is a necessary change for the College of Engineering…” At the University of Illinois-Chicago, on the other hand, students opposed to proposed differential fees for science and technology programs rallied on campus and discussed plans to lobby in the state capital. The editorial board of the Iowa State Daily wrote: “It pains us to say this, but the best short-term plan is to simply raise tuition across the board.” The student newspaper argued that “differential tuition simply punishes students,” and said the choice of major or class load “shouldn’t have to include financial deliberations.”

“I don’t believe that any institution opts for this as the pricing model of choice,” Nassirian says. Private universities, Lariviere explains, have “much greater latitude in setting tuition dictated by what the market will bear” and generally choose across-the-board increases, which tend to be smaller than tuition differentials, “whereas in public higher education there is the political dimension” of legislators seeking to displease the fewest possible voters. Yet the pressures of tight budgets that push universities toward differential tuition continue to mount, Nelson says. “I think you’re going to see an increase” in the number of schools joining the trend.

Beryl Lieff Benderly is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.




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