Colleges eye higher tuition for honors, high-cost programs

LANSING — To cover the costs of honors and higher-priced degree programs, public universities across the state are moving toward differential tuition, charging more for programs that are more expensive to deliver and have a high demand or high job placement, according to a report by the Presidents Council.

Undergraduate programs such as engineering, health sciences, business administration and computer science all require more funding, whether it’s for lab equipment, smaller class sizes or a higher faculty-to-student ratio.

“Although it has been a slow-growing practice in American public higher education in the past decade, the primary rationale is to charge students more of a market rate for specific programs or groups of programs they’re enrolled in, especially those that cost more to run,” said Dan Hurley, CEO of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.

Although the 15 public institutions in the state set their own tuition, those with differential tuition charge engineering majors more than a cheaper-to-educate English major, whether they’re coming from in or out of state.

For example, Oakland University raised its tuition in July for the schools of Nursing, Engineering & Computer Sciences and Business Administration.

Western Michigan University also has instituted differential tuition. Last fall, $2 million collected through differential tuition allowed its business school to hire five full-time faculty members.

Some of the additional money is being used for 300 scholarships for study abroad and research assistantships.

Students in the honors program at Grand Valley State University pay an extra $20 per credit hour for “tuition differential” on top of the $300 base fee, which adds up to about $400 to $500 more over four years.

Other programs at Grand Valley, such as nursing and engineering, also collect this differential tuition.

Jeff Chamberlain, director of GVSU’s Frederik Meijer Honors College, explained the additional fee is simply used to pay for programs that are more expensive to run without raising the cost of tuition for everyone.

“I don’t know if differential tuition is the perfect way of reducing the costs of public institutions, but we’re doing the best we can to keep costs low. It reaches a point where funds have to come from somewhere, and when state appropriations aren’t enough, we have to reallocate where the money comes from,” said Chamberlain.

Although the additional revenue allows for enhancement of the quality of programs, there’s concern that higher-priced programs could become inaccessible for lower-income families and minorities.

Hurley said there are options for those who need financial assistance. He and the Presidents Council want to ensure that first-generation college students aren’t discouraged from applying to higher-cost programs due to their socioeconomic status.

“There are tremendous scholarships and initiatives out there for low-income families,” Hurley said.

Universities such as Oakland are working toward reducing the net cost of attendance with institutional grants and scholarships.

In addition, graduating seniors in the schools of Health Sciences, Business Administration, Engineering and Computer Sciences will receive an additional $1.1 million in scholarships next year.

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