College Costs: Would Tuition Discounts Get More Students to Major in Science?

Ann McClure's picture

How much money would it take to get an English major to switch to engineering? Would a $1,000 discount on tuition every year do the trick? What about $5,000? What if switching majors not only reduced students’ debt load but also made it much more likely that they would find a job after graduation? Would that be enough to change their mind?

These are questions Florida is debating as it looks for ways to steer more students into high-paying fields that employers are eager to cultivate. Governor Rick Scott’s task force on higher education recently suggested freezing tuition at state schools in “strategic areas” like engineering, science, health care and technology, while letting the cost of humanities and other majors rise.

The Florida proposal is a new twist on an old idea. Instead of increasing tuition across the board, many universities over the past decade have started charging more for majors with courses that are more costly to provide. Degrees in biology and engineering, for example, typically involve smaller class sizes, higher faculty salaries and cutting-edge labs with expensive equipment, so universities look to students to foot more of the bill. Today some 45% of large public research universities differentiate their pricing this way. At the University of Texas at Austin, which started charging different tuition rates in 2004, engineering students pay $5,107 each semester, while liberal-arts majors pay $4,673. (That’s for in-state residents; for out-of-staters, the tuition costs jump to $17,189 and $15,878, respectively.)

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