Engineering and business students at an increasing number of public universities are finding themselves faced with a surcharge for their choice of studies, reports the New York Times (registration required) July 29.
Confronting rising costs and lagging state support, more and more public universities are choosing to make certain degrees more expensive. The fees are justified by the high salaries professors in these fields command, the expense of the specialized equipment required to teach these subjects, as well as the difficulties in getting state legislatures to approve across-the-board tuition increases, say university officials.
Just how steep are the surcharges? This fall, juniors and seniors pursuing a bachelor degree in business at the University of Wisconsin will pay $500 more than their classmates per semester. A $40 premium for each hour of class credit has been assessed by the University of Nebraska for engineering students. Engineering, pharmacy and business students have paid premiums at the State University of New Jersey for years, premiums that will range from $200 to $900 this fall.
Many university officials admitted that they were uneasy about a practice which put value on one degree path over another, and that might also risk clustering low-income students in surcharge-free fields. The University of Kansas, which has had surcharges attached to business and engineering degrees since the early 1990s, said they already saw signs that the higher costs of these majors seemed to be affecting the choices of poorer students.
Though proponents of the practice argued that it offset by starting salaries of students with these degrees after college, others disagreed, pointing out that starting salaries were a poor indicator of lifetime income, as most individuals change direction several times over the course of their careers.
Across blogs, reactions were mixed, but many expressed concern that differential pricing for certain degrees puts too much focus on the degrees themselves, and not on the university experience itself.
“Well, the problem is that society and the students themselves place a value on one discipline over another. Education has become a means to an end and not a goal in itself,” wrote Michele at Reformed Chicks Blogging.
Others didn’t like the presumption behind the degree-skewed tuitions that what was written on a college diploma had any proven connection with the work an individual did after graduation.
In the New York Times article, a dean lamented the way that differential pricing of degrees reflected changing societal views on the value of an education.
“There was a time, not that long ago, 10 to 15 years ago, that the vast majority of the cost of education at public universities was borne by the state, and that was why tuition was so low,” Mark J. Kushner, dean of the College of Engineering at Iowa State told the Times.
“That was based on the premise that the education of an individual is a public good, that [when] individuals go out and become schoolteachers and businessmen and doctors and lawyers, that makes society better. That’s no longer the perception.”