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The trouble with Towson’s tiered tuition - a tiny tutorial | COMMENTARY

Towson University this semester began charging a higher tuition to certain majors including nursing. The choice would seem to discourage students from choosing that major even as there's a statewide nursing shortage.
Towson University this semester began charging a higher tuition to certain majors including nursing. The choice would seem to discourage students from choosing that major even as there's a statewide nursing shortage. (Steve Ruark/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Over the last decade or so, U.S. colleges and universities have figured out that they can get away with charging more in tuition for some majors than others. This is called a “differential” or “tiered tuition” and it can add up quickly. There are any number of advantages to this — at least from the schools’ point of view. Raising the cost for some students means keeping it down for others, at least in theory. And, of course, it means schools can advertise a lower tuition to applicants. It’s only well after they enroll and, after a semester or two of general studies, choose a popular major that their families may be in for an unpleasant surprise. It can add up to thousands of more tuition dollars per year for students who go into computer science or business, two of the high-demand majors that tend to get tagged with a differential.

Recently, analysts at the state Department of Legislative Services uncovered one of the hazards of this approach. Towson University has begun charging more to students enrolled in its nursing program. It’s a gradual increase — $250 in the current semester, $500 per semester in the 2020-21 calendar year and $750 after that with a cap of $3,000 per student. Towson President Dr. Kim Schatzel has defended the choice because the major is costly to the school requiring more in faculty and facilities. The differential was adopted in nursing (along with business and computer science) “to maintain academic excellence and accessibility,” she told members of a Senate subcommittee, according to a recent article in The Maryland Daily Record.

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But not so fast. There happens to be a shortage of nurses in Maryland right now, as there is nationwide, and it’s threatening the quality of medical care. Lawmakers are aware of that, and so they’ve been supplementing nursing school costs. This year alone, Towson is receiving $650,000 in workforce development funds for its nursing program. So it’s natural for legislators to ask: If the major is so popular that Towson can charge thousands of dollars extra for it, why should taxpayers be billed, too? That’s a good question.

Alas, this is not the only drawback with differentials. As some leading educators have observed to The Sun, charging more for popular majors — often ones that offer well-paying jobs at the end of four years — is especially unhelpful to youngsters from low and moderate-income families who already need financial assistance. That’s why University of Maryland Baltimore County does not charge any, for example. Do we really want to deter such individuals from rewarding career opportunities? There is something truly horrifying about schools creating a financial incentive for poor, largely minority, students to take art history or philosophy (no offense, liberal arts majors) instead of nursing, business or computer science, when there are leading employers begging for the latter.

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As for the high costs associated with these majors, there may be something to that. Science majors need labs. English majors don’t. But there are limits. Just ask any university president what major is the most expensive to teach. It isn’t health care. It’s certainly not business. Quite frequently, it’s instrumental music. Not just because of the outlay for equipment (although those Steinway concert grands do add up) but because one doesn’t teach someone to play the violin in a lecture hall of 200 students, it’s often a one-on-one or small group experience, and the salary cost of those instructors adds up. But universities don’t charge a differential for music. It’s tough enough to recruit for that major without one. In reality, differentials are charged for a reason as old as capitalism — it’s what the market will bear.

We suspect lawmakers aren’t going to tell the Board of Regents or University System of Maryland chancellor to rollback differentials at Towson, particularly given they are expected to ultimately produce about $5 million more in revenue each year. But we would urge President Schatzel and others to be cautious about how far they travel down this road. Frankly, it would be far better if the health care industry stepped forward to underwrite undergraduate nursing costs. And, given the importance of maintaining Maryland’s health care standards, it’s prudent for the General Assembly to underwrite them, too. There is enough division between the have’s and the have-not’s these days to see it extended more deeply into one’s choice of college majors.

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