Colleges Charging Different Tuition Rates Based on Your Major

Some state colleges and universities have started charging different undergraduate tuition rates depending on what the student decides to major in. Business majors at the University of Wisconsin pay $500 more each semester than do their liberal arts peers. Graduate schools have been doing this for years: Law school and med school tuition tends to be more per term than, say, an advanced degree in comparative literature. But is it fair?

Starting this fall, juniors and seniors pursuing an undergraduate major in the business school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, will pay $500 more each semester than classmates. The University of Nebraska last year began charging engineering students a $40 premium for each hour of class credit.

And Arizona State University this fall will phase in for upperclassmen in the journalism school a $250 per semester charge above the basic $2,411 tuition for in-state students.

Journalism??! Since when does journalism earn the big bucks? When’s the last time someone you know said, “Yeah, I’m making good money, but it’s not newspaper money…” ? (Anyway…)

On the one hand, most of these majors lead to more lucrative careers, so students are getting greater value from their education than some of their peers. But colleges acknowledge that lower-income kids may be getting shut out of the bigger-money career tracks because of “price sensitivity” to the higher tuition rates.

So: Fair or not?

Certain Degrees Now Cost More at Public Universities
(Photo: casseteject)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Wormfather says:

    Supply & Demand.

    Buck up MBA’s, it’s your first lesson in buisness.

  2. tedyc03 says:

    University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA charges more for an engineering degree (there’s a set lab fee every semester). It simply costs more to train these individuals, so the fees reflect that.

  3. MostNutsEver says:

    To venture a guess, I think would it would be in part because teachers in the more profitable majors have a higher salary.

  4. sleze69 says:

    While I agree that this sucks for the low income student, the real impact of adding $4k to the rest of one’s student loans for all 4 years is not that significant. Atleast the engineer will be able to pay it back (as opposed to the Philosophy student who will be relegated to a job at Borders/Starbucks).

  5. Skiffer says:

    Is this even news? I know tuition was higher for an engineering degree than for a liberal arts degree when I went to college.

    “is it fair?”

    Ummm…hell yes! Why wouldn’t it be? Different majors have different types of classes and requirements (labs, small seminars vs. giant lectures) – it only makes sense that they incur different expenses.

    And as far as price-sensitivity – that’s what financial aid and student loans are for. I took out private loans (in addition to the federal financial aid loans) to pay my whole college education. If you’re concerned about being able to pay them back after graduation…maybe you should’ve gotten a more useful degree…

  6. JuliusJefferson says:

    Likewise, at my school. There are so many fees associated with any one class, that the most of these majors (speaking from an engineer) end up paying more than their liberal arts peers. But, to me, this makes sense because when was the last time a history major needed a $20,000 CNC machine?

  7. CreativeLinks says:

    I am all for this. If you want to attract professors who can actually make more “doing” then “teaching” it stands to reason they are going to cost more.

    We see this in Law, Medicine, etc. In fact, This American Life did an interesting segment about how hard it is for Universities to find professors to teach Nursing. Since Nurses can pretty much set their own salaries these days.

  8. Hawk07 says:

    I know at my college they called it “Differential Tuition”. Basically, screw certain majors with the described $XX per hour surplus.

    The thing though is students never see the benefits from this extra money. Sometimes those little plaques that say, “This ___________ was paid for by differential tuition” can go a long way.

  9. vladthepaler says:

    Is it fair? Well gosh. What is a business degree worth? What is a comparative literature degree worth? If the former is worth more than the latter and they’re being sold for the same price, it’s probably a really bad business school.

  10. Pelagius says:

    Australia has been doing this for a while.

  11. snwbrder0721 says:

    I pay $60 more per credit hour to be a business major at the University of Northern Colorado, but I think it makes sense. Our college is by far the nicest on campus and our faculty is top notch, even when compared to nearby “name-brand” schools. If nothing else they’re justifying it because they’re the only business school to ever win the Malcolm Balridge national quality award.

  12. JPropaganda says:

    @Pelagius: So has Canada! It all has to do with how much the government is willing to support these programs. At my school, for example, Arts and Science tuition fees were regulated by the federal government. We all paid the same price and the big money went to chemistry and sciences that need labs, in detriment to the Humanities.

    The Engineering and commerce departments, however, were deregulated, so they charged more money because they NEEDED it, for better professors, better learning environments, everything.

    You can’t just blanket something that’s more expensive as “not good”

  13. skittlbrau says:

    Absolutely fair. I went to Indiana University, and there was a business school lab fee of something like $500 a semester.

    Many times its reflective of the costs of educating these majors. The Kelley School had more computer labs than any other building on campus, as well as professors who could likely be making way more “doing” instead of “teaching”.

    If it costs more to educate students in certain majors, these costs should be reflected in their tuition.

  14. Raanne says:

    This seems pretty standard. I know my school was like this… Engineering degree was about the same as a graduate degree at most schools. It was the most expensive undergraduate degree that they offered… But i think each college set their own tuition rates, so at a university which usually has at least 3 colleges, you are bound to have differing tuitions.

  15. Daemon_of_Waffle says:

    Visit this guys blog. He’s a community college dean. He kinda argues for differential tuition, among other things.


    From his point of view, courses like nursing and other high equipment cost courses could charge more to make up for the increase equipment costs. Interesting theory.

  16. gershinator says:

    Taxes subsidize a large portion of the costs of schooling anyway. Everyone is still getting a bargain. Make the students (all) pay more money.

  17. Jacquilynne says:

    Differentiated tuition makes sense to me based on where the costs are different more than where the expected benefits are different. A program like English Lit requires some barebones classrooms, some books the students are going to pay for separately anyway, and some professors who are being paid little because their only other option with their English Lit degrees is teaching high school. Science and engineering, art and theatre programs and such require equipment and lab/performance/studio spaces and such, so having those degrees cost more makes some sense to me. I couldn’t figure out why business schools would–but the higher salaries of the people who teach the classes that someone mentioned earlier makes sense.

  18. selianth says:

    When I was in college the various fees that you had to pay for certain courses was essentially the same thing. Even my music major had fees, for our private lessons, even though they were required credit courses. What drove me nuts was I got a full tuition scholarship from the school, and couldn’t apply a 2nd music-specific scholarship towards my private lessons fees because it was a “tuition reduction” scholarship and my tuition was already zero. A higher tuition for music majors would have been much better for me.

  19. Doc Benway says:

    @sleze69: I actually work for a consulting company thank you. But I still think my philosophy degree from an ivy league school should have been less than an econ degree. When I graduated I was overly qualified to piss people off at cocktail parties and just about nothing else.

  20. beyond says:

    If they are charging what the degree is “worth”, shouldn’t liberal arts majors be attending for free?

  21. Skiffer says:

    @beyond: Not necessarily, there’s some “daycare” value intrinsic to a liberal arts degree :P

  22. chili_dog says:

    @snwbrder0721: UNC. oh that takes me back.

  23. pinkbunnyslippers says:

    I think this has nothing to do with the cost of educating students as much as it has to do with what entering freshmen deem to be “hot” majors. If a college knows a certain percentage of their incoming class is going to gravitate toward a certain major, then hell yeah they’re going to charge more for it.

    I don’t want to hear anything about low income students being “shut out” of bigger-money career tracks. If you’re a hard worker, earn grades enough to get you a nice hefty scholarship, then the cost differential shouldn’t matter.

    And if it does, chances are you aren’t a hard enough worker to be in these majors in the first place. There – I said it.

  24. nequam says:

    I think it’s fair for tuition rates to reflect the special resources (equipment, higher faculty salaries) associated with certain fields of study. What makes less sense to me is the idea that you would peg the tuition based on some value (intrinsic or perceived) of a particular major. It is a fallacy that liberal arts majors are less employable than more specialized majors. In fact, they often compete for the same jobs, and studies demonstrate that liberal arts majors tend to advance more quickly and earn more than their specialized counterparts. This is because actual skills, rather than field of study, are of utmost importance to employers. A student who treats college as a trade school is likely to emerge with a limited skill set. In any event, most fresh employees undergo significant training by the employers, in which case the best student has the best shot.

    What it really comes down to is the individual student. The philosophy major working at Starbucks probably has no interest in a financial services jobs. At the same time, the career-focused art history major is at little competitive disadvantage for the entry-level banking job. When finance majors are a dime-a-dozen a broad educational background can help you stand out.

  25. Faculty salaries are generally fairly even across disciplines. “Superstar” faculty who publish a lot, bring in a lot of grants, or end up on CNN and the cover of Time magazine a lot get higher salaries, regardless of field.

    But other than superstars, faculty salaries are sometimes even “lockstep” (at some schools) where you get $X if you’ve been teaching Y years, regardless of discipline. At state institutions, legislatures may declare maximums or ranges for faculty salaries.

    And for all the snippy people at liberal arts grads, almost everyone I’m related to is a liberal arts grad and not exactly lacking for high-salary job opportunities. (Though some of us, I confess, went to law school.) My one engineering cousin is in sales. :) And darn good at it!

  26. Kurtz says:

    This isn’t new – The University of Texas has been doing this for a while. The fees are based on what college (Liberal Arts, Fine Arts, Natural Sciences, etc.) the major is under. I forget what the scale is, but I recall Fine Arts and Engineering majors being the most expensive and Liberal Arts majors being the cheapest.

  27. Scott says:

    I think tiered tuition is a good idea. Otherwise the temptation is to recruit the ‘high margin’ students who pay a lot but don’t cost as much.

  28. alhypo says:

    @pinkbunnyslippers: Seconded. It always amazes me that people think the price they are charged for any particular item or service has anything to do with the actual cost of producing it. It almost always boils down to supply and demand. If more people demand it, the price will go up.

    Granted, they are probably not going to charge a premium for English majors even though it is a popular degree. The reason being that a large portion of English majors are just students who want any degree, so many will switch to another subject if they raise the price too high. This is an indication of highly elastic demand–meaning people are willing to do without it.

    As for whether it is fair: I say it is. You can imagine a university focusing more resources to the highly demanded majors thereby starving other departments of their revenue share. It seems fair not to have to burden the regular people with the additional cost incurred.

    Plus, it has been my observation that qualified instructors for these highly demanded fields can almost always make more money outside of academia. In other words, it is going to cost more to attract a decent finance teacher to the school than it would to attract a decent English teacher.

    Why should the English students–who basically end up with useless degrees–have to shoulder the cost of bringing in highly qualified business instructors?

  29. Notsewfast says:


    What you are saying is generally true, but you are speaking about the lowest-common denominator. Sure a poorly educated finance major and an art history major have the same ability to do an unskilled job like being a bank teller or personal banker, most of the training there is done on the job.

    The difference comes when you consider the best students in those particular graduating classes. The best art history major is still as qualified as the poor finance student, but the top of the finance class is able to jump into mid-level portfolio management (with a much better salary)

  30. TWinter says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: Huh???? The salary differences between fields at most schools are GIGANTIC!!!! There are some low-tier schools that have unions and lock-step pay rates based on seniority, but most of the big universities pay competitive rates and those are very much dependent on the field.

    A beginning prof in English might make low-40s to low-50s depending on the school. A beginning prof in a hot field like finance at the same school might start out at over 100k, and get more non-salary perks on top of that.

    Full disclosure, I work for a large university and that’s how things work around here.

  31. whydidnt says:

    A few random thoughts:

    1. Why should a public University that receives huge subsidies from the government be in the business of making market based decisions on class cost? The fact that the government funds them should mean they exist to serve the public interest, NOT find ways to turn a profit. Private schools are a different matter.

    2. The cost for any particular course/credit should be based upon the cost to deliver the product (again in a public school). If it’s more expensive to hire business professors than philosophy, then that should be reflected in the relative tuition.

    I get real uncomfortable when a public institution decides that because you may make more later, it’s okay to charge more now. Don’t business majors take jobs in the public sector and non-profits, too? It’s a very liberal view on life for the University to charge more today because you’re probably going to make more later – almost like a pre-tax — like they are saying “How dare you make a good living off of our education”.

  32. pinkbunnyslippers says:

    @whydidnt: I think the initial reaction to this story is to say how unfair it is for a college to charge you more based on what you may or may not make later on in life. I don’t think this is the case at all. It’s purely a matter of more students wanting to enroll in certain types of classes, and a college is trying to capitalize on that. You could probably couple that with these schools having to hire more faculty to deal with the influx of students wanting to major in these specialities, but I find that to be not as plausible of a reason as “we’ll make more money if we charge more”.

    I don’t think public schools are trying to “turn a profit”, so to speak, but rather just try to make more money to pump back into their institutions, which I don’t think is unreasonable at all. The government only helps so much…

  33. Observer2121 says:

    Why wasn’t this done sooner? Majors that get paid more on average should pay more in tuition. Now if only we could make tuition free for everyone. Maybe the proceeds from the arms deal with Saudi Arabia can be used for that.

  34. alicetheowl says:

    I went to college in New England, where the colleges have a particular deal. Out-of-state students are charged more than in-state ones, but there’s a midway point for the particular majors that aren’t offered in the student’s home state.

    It’s how I got away with paying a bit less for my Creative Writing degree, and why I didn’t just switch majors and went with a dual degree when I picked up Psychology.

    A BA in Psychology is a very interesting conversation piece, though it isn’t good for much more than that.

  35. stre says:

    I recently graduated with a nuclear engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin, and there was quite the debate this last year about raising tuition specifically for engineering students as well. Most of the engineers I knew felt that since the engineering school brought far more money to the university than the liberal arts school that in fact that LIBERAL ARTS MAJORS SHOULD PAY MORE to make up the difference.

    I will grant that *perhaps* they were somewhat biased, so I’m trying to look at the situation with more logic than blind sociology-bashing. I think the question that needs to be posed is whether the students for any given portion of the university are paying for their respective portion of university budget. While the engineering campus brings in far more money for research, it also spends far more on the equipment required to do the research/teaching(i.e. a small working nuclear reactor at the UW, which is probably more expensive to run each year than the entire philosophy department). Why shouldn’t students pay for get they get access to at their school, whether it’s more for engineers/business students or liberal arts majors?

  36. MrGromit says:

    Wow, what a brilliant idea! Encourage the students who can least afford school to pursue the worthless degrees! Now they can pull themselves up by their collective bootstraps and get that degree in Ethno-musicology and after graduation they’ll be raking in…aw, who am I kidding; they’ll never find a job.

    Why doesn’t it surprise me that Sociology students are all for this?

    It’s not like the students in different disciplines have any more money than others, so why punish them on the front-end?

    Business, law, and med graduates donate *far* more than their liberal arts counterparts, so why isn’t that weighed in this equation?

    BTW, the benefit of having a Philosophy degree is that at least you know *why* you’re unemployed…

  37. urabl says:

    Yes, engineering degrees should (and usually do) cost more because of all the expensive labs, equipment, etc. As far as charging more for something like journalism…I think that also makes sense, if only because it would hopefully separate the kids who really want that degree from the kids who don’t care and just want to major in something that sounds easy.

  38. swalve says:

    University of Illinois was doing this in 1993, the school of engineering had higher tuition than other schools. This was on top of the lab fees for the different classes.

    Don’t forget too that a BS will be more expensive than a BA, since a BS is generally 120 credit hours and a BA is more like 96.

  39. jnkdaniel says:

    How about just making the major more difficult so the endowment money can be spread easier?

    Sounds like the rich want to buy their kids the good degrees, not earn it.

  40. swalve says:

    “if only because it would hopefully separate the kids who really want that degree from the kids who don’t care and just want to major in something that sounds easy.”

    How about making the classes harder?

  41. drjayphd says:

    And Arizona State University this fall will phase in for upperclassmen in the journalism school a $250 per semester charge above the basic $2,411 tuition for in-state students.

    Oh, they’re just making up for all the money the lucky few who get to use their degree won’t be able to afford to give once they graduate.

  42. DAK says:

    When I started looking for colleges 12 years ago, there were quite a few of them already doing this. Of course it’s fair. Suggesting that all degrees should cost the same is like saying that a high end BMW should be priced like a Corolla, because they’re both cars.

  43. MrGromit says:

    Um, DAK? No.

    Calling a degree in Architecture from Stanford the same as the ‘identical’ degree from, say, Chico State the same because they’re both Architecture degrees would be claiming they should be priced alike because they’re both cars.

    *Any* degree from Stanford is going to be valued in the marketplace over *any* degree from Chico simply by the fact that you were accepted into Stanford, and not that after exhausting all other alternatives you accepted your ‘safe school’ offer from Chico.

    An undergrad credit hour at Chico State should cost the same across the board, just like an undergrad credit hour at Stanford should cost the same across the board.

    *Especially* at state schools (which Stanford is not, but that’s beside the point).

  44. bennyb says:

    If your school charges the same for engineering as it does for liberal arts, chances are you are being thought The Theory of Engineering & Mathematics

  45. Yeah…UCLA’s business school is a different college than Letters and Science, and I KNOW it’s more expensive there. It’s also not generally students’ first Bachelor’s at UCLA. I think Engineering is more expensive too, but there’s materials to consider. My friend had to build an alternative car for her mechanical engineering degree.

  46. StevieD says:

    The basic fee for any university or college is for the BASIC classroom activities. A simple lecture class is pretty cheap.

    I remember my college days. Any class that had a lab or special activity associated with the class would have a lab fee. Computer, photography, chemistry, biology etc etc.

    Many of the classes in those fields that did not have a lab fee most likely should have. It takes a lot more to set up and conduct a photo lecture class than a class in English Literature.

    So the University is going to charge more for certain degrees? Big Whoopee. It is about time. I am sure much of the fee is going to go back to the department to support the more costly to product major. If I was majoring in one of the cheaper fields I would smile and shut my mouth before the department head figures out he/she wants to raise their own fees as well.

  47. synergy says:

    It always annoyed me that two or three science books of mine cost about the same as all the books for all the classes for a liberal arts major. That was before the lab fees got added in.

  48. Her Grace says:

    @Pelagius: I was jut coming to say that. Yes, it sucks when you’re paying for it, but overall I’m not opposed to the idea. Then again, I’m paying through the nose as a full-fee international student and it’s still cheaper than postgrad in most places in the US.

    Synergy, for the social sciences books cost an arm and a leg, too. The lit people could buy other editions of the novels they had to read. When one is doing a liberal arts degree in modern politics, it gets expensive and very fast. I love(d)