A costly trend

A look at other public universities and their histories of applying differential tuition Photo by Ian Fike

Students in selected majors could see an increase in the cost of attendance if the UW follows the nationwide trend of differential tuition.

According to a brief released by the Office of Planning & Budgeting (OPB), 57 percent of public universities nationwide use some form of differential tuition. The definition for differential tuition, however, is broad. Program fees, course fees, and in-state versus out-of-state tuition all fall under the term’s umbrella.

“There really is an infrastructure for differential pricing already,” said Sarah Hall, OPB director of planning and state operations. “It’s just at the undergraduate level when we think of doing this.”

The OPB brief outlined the national trend of differential tuition. Of 11 engineering schools that implemented differential tuition in 2010-11, the average tuition increase was 14.99 percent. The nationwide average of all major tuition increases in 2008 was 10.8 percent. The range between all universities, however, was between 1 and 82 percent.

Senate Bill 6399 (SB 6399) would allow for the use of program fees in Washington state public universities if passed. High-cost majors such as engineering and business would be at risk for these add-on costs.

Hall said the UW model for program fees is still in the works and does not have projected numbers yet. But she said it would likely affect the Foster School of Business and the College of Engineering.

The high costs of these programs result in less available seats for students. Because of the growing market for engineers, these seats are in high demand. Matt O’Donnell, dean of the College of Engineering, said the college currently turns away more than half of the applicants. In certain departments, he said it can be as high as two-thirds.

“What we’re very worried about is access for students who want to follow an engineering degree,” O’Donnell said. “We know that we have to increase the overall number of seats that we have. … At the same time, the state’s cut the funding in half in the last three years.”

In the 2010-11 budget review, the College of Engineering requested a $5,000-per-year program fee for 2012-13. O’Donnell said this money would allow the college to avoid cutting enrollment in half. If implemented, the fee would be among the highest national differential tuition fees.

Although the nation’s highest public undergraduate engineering programs, UC Berkeley and Georgia Tech, do not currently implement differential tuition, the University of Illinois, tied at second, charges a program fee of $4,728. The revenue often goes toward faculty retention and additional seats for students.

Differential tuition is essential for the UW College of Engineering to maintain the quality of its program, O’Donnell said. With a build-up of budget cuts over the past three years, the college is struggling to pay high faculty salaries and lab accreditations.

“Our faculty are very marketable outside the university,” O’Donnell said. “The salaries that we have to pay to have good faculty are high by university standards. Our people can pop off in a minute and double their salaries.”

O’Donnell said he is not worried about additional costs deterring students, though the OPB cites no data on socio-economic factors affecting students’ enrollment in courses with program fees. Financial aid, he said, will be a key factor to include in the program costs.

“We would take a piece of the program fee itself that would go directly into the financial-aid pot,” O’Donnell said. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to jack up this fee and not get the financial aid,’ and not assume it’s going to affect people’s choices.”

The role of financial aid and program fees is still unclear, Hall said. Although the UW is hoping to develop more aid through the revenue of the fees, Hall said scholarship donations will also have to increase.

Additionally, program fees would remain outside the reach of other types of aid, such as Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) credits. GET covers base tuition through point credits purchased in advance. Program fees would not be covered by these credits.

Financial aid was crucial for civil-engineering senior Mark Ullery. As a Husky Promise student, Ullerly said the aid he received will allow him to graduate without debt. Even with additional program fees, he said he would have pursued engineering.

“The investment in being in civil engineering was worth the costs even if I hadn’t had as much financial aid as I have gotten,” Ullery said.

Because of the need to expand, Ullery said he understood why the College of Engineering would implement program fees. However, he did not agree with the fee structure and said he could see how it would deter other potential engineering students.

“I understand that the cost is more. To get competitive faculty and to really have a good department it does cost money, but that’s an investment worth taking,” he said. “I’m not necessarily sold on differential tuition being the avenue that we should take to expand.”

In Junior Khoi Nguyen’s case, course fees — a current differential pricing structure — have discouraged her from taking courses, and she could see how this would happen on a broader level with program fees.

Nguyen, a bioengineering student, commutes to school in order to save money. One of the main reasons she said she chose the UW was her eligibility for state Pell Grants. Nguyen said she plans to move onto campus next year, but if program fees were implemented, the move would not be an option.

It is not likely for program fees to come to the UW for the next school year though, Hall said. For the UW, she said, the conversation is still in the very preliminary stages, and they will use the time after the bill passes to discuss how to implement program fees.

Other majors included in the national trend for program fees are architecture, journalism, education, nursing, fine arts, and the sciences. Hall, however, said the trend is not reflective of the UW model if program fees are implemented.

The Foster School of Business would be affected comparable to engineering, Hall said. Similarly, the school has high costs due to faculty salaries and demand for seats.

Nonetheless, UW junior Lynsey Rohrbach, a human resources management major, said it’s unfair to charge business students more.

“I worked really hard to get into the business school,” Rohrbach said. “For me to have to pay more money on top of that to get an education is disappointing.”

Hall said the fairness of tuition is a main focus of differential tuition.

“Do we want our liberal-arts majors who learn from faculty who aren’t as expensive as engineering faculty to be paying for all of those engineering positions that we want to open up?” she said. “Some students are in programs that are less expensive to deliver and should be paying the fair market-price tuition for that program.”

Reach reporter Jillian Stampher at news@dailyuw.com.

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