CORRECTION APPENDED: This column failed to name The New York Times as a source of information on the tuition policies of several colleges.
With student loans, credit card bills and unpaid internships, college kids are chronically short on cash. There are many ways to try to save money, like buying used textbooks and cutting down on extraneous purchases, but now another factor is complicating students’ finances. Declaring a major is no longer just an indicator of a student’s life path; it may affect their pocketbooks as well.
Due to an increase in costs for teachers and equipment resulting from cuts in state funding, some public universities are charging more money for certain majors to help ease their financial situations. Starting this fall, undergraduate business school students at the University of Wisconsin will pay $500 more per semester than their classmates. Likewise, Arizona State University will begin charging upperclassmen in the journalism school $250 more per semester.
This practice, however, isn’t a new phenomenon. Rutgers University has used this kind of pricing for years, with in-state undergraduates in the School of Arts and Sciences paying $8,541 while engineering and pharmacy students foot $9,484.80 bills.
It’s disgraceful that state governments have been so lacking in funds to higher education that universities have to resort to this kind of major-specific pricing. Some schools even acknowledge that this isn’t the right way to bring in money because it may have serious consequences.
The primary concern is the effect this system will have on students who come from a lower economic status. Public universities are supposed to be an equalizer, giving students who can’t afford to go to private institutions the same education at a lower price. Unfortunately, this pricing strategy goes against giving equal opportunities to poorer students by putting greater restrictions on the scope of their education.
Economically disadvantaged students may find themselves with a more limited choice of majors than others. A few hundred or even a thousand dollars is hardly chump change. A student with a passion and knack for business should not have to settle for another degree because of economic constraints. College should be a place where students can explore their interests and not have to settle for what interest is cheapest.
In this light, it’s tempting to say that this situation amounts to the rich getting richer with business and engineering degrees, and the poor getting poorer with English and art history degrees. This is the second subtle yet dangerous outcome that major-specific pricing brings about, which doesn’t just affect a certain subgroup of students but dampens the mood of the college experience in general.
More and more frequently, kids and adults are looking at the college experience in terms of job training and future marketability. Adults pressure their kids to study business, finance or engineering because those are the jobs that people perceive as leading to better and richer futures. Students who choose to study English, history or psychology often come up against confused stares and the question, “so what are you planning to do with that?”
College is not a job training service or placement agency. It’s a place to become a well-rounded individual, pursue your interests and expand your horizons. Yes, some majors lead to clearer job paths than others, but that should not be what determines the worth of a major or the potential of its students. Students can be successful no matter what they choose to pursue, and the world prospers from having a variety of thinkers on multiple topics.
Hopefully, state governments will get their act together and start appropriating more money to higher education before major-specific pricing becomes a nationwide trend. Until then, maybe state representatives can pencil in some time to take another political science, economics or sociology course.
Rachel Wagner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.