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Differential Tuition: What You Need to Know

differential tuition

Just When You Thought You Knew What You Are Going to Pay for College, Here’s A New Revenue Enhancer That a Growing Number of Colleges Are Using That Can Be Devastating to Your Budget

Most students and their families are familiar with the idea that not all students at a school pay the same tuition. There’s been in-state and out-of-state tuition offered by public colleges and universities for years. There are also tuition discounts available to students based on the region in which they live.

But did you know that some schools are charging a different tuition based on area of study or class standing? What’s more, it can be really tough to find out in the fine print of the college’s brochure exactly how differential tuition is going to affect your costs.

So just when you thought you’d figured out your college costs, schools have come up with a new way to surprise you!

Confusion, Frustration, and Anger Due to Lack of Transparency

According to a study titled “Unmasking College Costs: Challenges in the Era of Differential Tuition Practices” presented at the American Educational Research Association meeting in 2017, there’s been a significant uptick in the number of schools implementing differential tuition.  From the 1992-1993 to 2015-2016 academic years, there has been a substantial increase in the percentage of colleges using a differential tuition model.

These additional costs aren’t limited to degree programs in STEM fields, either, but include business and liberal arts programs, too.

According to researchers, schools figure that students preparing for high-paying and in-demand careers may be willing to make a greater financial investment in their education, thereby justifying the differential. Because these differentials are often so opaque, however, is the heart of the problem.

Right now, a lack of standardization and transparency among schools in how the tuition differences are carried out can cause confusion, surprise, and frustration for students and families. After all, many students and their families must finance their education with loans; these unforeseen costs are not an ideal part of the equation.

Sometimes, students push back. For example, when the University of Maryland’s differential tuition program was proposed in 2015, students organized a petition and spoke out. However, given the number of schools where these costs are now in place, it’s safe to assume that these extras are something families must consider when putting together a college budget.

What Differential Tuition Might Mean for You

Schools are getting creative in ways to increase revenue for certain programs – whether to meet budgets or provide “extras”. Faculty costs are a big expense, labs need to be maintained and updated, and special programs provide unique and influential learning opportunities. It’s hard to argue with higher costs and extra fees when they’re being reinvested in the program and do ultimately benefit students.

But these higher costs can disproportionately hurt lower-income families and first generation families, who may not be as savvy on where to look for these details, and therefore be caught by surprise. All families, of course, need clear information around the actual amount college will be costing them.

The Surprise on higher tuition costs can come after you enter college.

Sometimes differential tuition policies can be devastating to your college budget especially when resulting in a change in costs for student’s mid-program. For example, some schools don’t phase in differential tuition until junior or senior class standing, such as the University of Maryland, where the differential tuition costs raised tuition by $1,400 per semester.

If you’re a student who comes in with an undeclared major and then decides to go into business, engineering or computer science, your tuition costs may jump significantly, stretching your budget to the breaking point. Part-time students may be charged a per-credit differential tuition.

What You Can Do Now

There are some key takeaways from the study that can help families planning for college now. According to the study, some schools are more likely to have differential tuition than others, based on geography, type of school, and tuition rate. Pay extra attention when figuring costs at schools in the Plains, Rocky Mountain, and Great Lakes regions; these schools, plus land-grant schools, and those with medium or high in-state tuition costs are all more likely to have these extra costs.

Researchers also found that differential tuition details can be hard to find. Understand that differential tuition costs might be named something else. Look for key terms like program fees, additional fees, and enrichment fees. Consider comparing multiple programs across the college or school: are all students asked to pay these additional fees, and are they the same amount at each school?

Review tuition tables, including footnotes, carefully. Differential tuition costs may be reported in various places, such as bursar’s office pages, college pages, or school bulletins. When in doubt, call the school and talk to someone in the bursar’s office, the financial aid office, or the college offering the degree program directly.


Jim Slowik

Jim Slowik strategizes for families of all incomes to leave no stone unturned to reduce college costs. Jim has worked for over 30 years in marketing and management with 20 of those years in financially related industries. As a parent of college students, Jim understands the challenges of navigating the college process. He holds a Bachelors of Marketing from North Central College.

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