How Your Choice of Major Could Cost You Thousands

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If you’re planning to become a nurse, engineer, or business manager, you’ll likely earn more than many of your peers once you graduate. That’s a good thing because your education might cost much more than for your friends who studied liberal arts or English.

Differential tuition — where the cost of tuition varies from major to major — is a rapidly growing trend. In fact, a whopping 60 percent of public research universities base tuition prices on your major or year of study, reported The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Here’s what you need to know about the differential tuition model and how it could affect your total cost of attendance.

What is differential tuition?

Schools that use a differential tuition model base tuition costs on factors such as your field of study or the year you’ll graduate. If you plan to major in science or technology, you could see your tuition rates rise dramatically.

At some schools, you might end up paying up to 40 percent more for particular majors, according to a report from The Advisory Board Company.

For example, the base total cost of attendance for Illinois residents attending school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is $15,438 per semester. However, if you plan to study chemistry or life sciences, your bill jumps to $17,940. Over the course of a four-year program, that can add over $20,000 to your college costs.

differential tuition costs

Cost of attendance per semester at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rates assume student is an Illinois resident and incoming freshman for the Fall 2017 semester.

As of 2015, 86 of 143 public research universities used a differential tuition model. That’s a huge leap from the 1990s, when just nine schools used it.

Why do schools charge more for certain majors?

Schools say they need to charge more for some majors to pay for more expensive programs. An engineering program, for example, needs more advanced technology and labs than an English program. To cover the difference, colleges charge engineering students more than their counterparts in other fields.

Using a differential tuition structure might also prevent across-the-board tuition increases. By tailoring pricing according to major, schools could prevent tuition hikes for all.

Texas A&M, one of the largest universities in the U.S., is one of many schools that uses a differential tuition structure.

According to Delisa Falks, the assistant vice president of scholarships and financial aid at Texas A&M, this model helps them provide a better academic experience.

“Differential tuition allows for enhancements to the learning experience,” said Falks. “This could include extra course sections, new computers and equipment, extra lecturers, and study abroad programs.”

The tuition structure also helps provide opportunities for other students. “A portion of the funding is used to provide grants and scholarships to students,” said Falks.

However, there are critics of the differential tuition model. Some believe that the premiums for some majors could discourage students from studying pivotal subjects. For lower-income students, it could make some subjects cost-prohibitive.

According to MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance at the National College Access Network, the variable tuition and fees can be confusing and overwhelming for families.

“There’s a possibility that you’ll only find out when your bill arrives,” she told The Pew Charitable Trusts. That could leave some students struggling to fund their chosen major.

How to pay for more expensive majors

Paying to attend a four-year school is hard enough; having to pay a premium for certain majors might seem impossible. But before you decide to switch majors to save money, consider these options to pay for college.

1. Complete the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is your gateway to federal financial aid. Not only do you get access to federal student loans, which typically have lower interest rates and more generous repayment terms than other loans, but you might also qualify for grants.

Unlike loans, grants don’t need to be paid back, making them a valuable tool to pay for school. Many grants go undistributed. In fact, a NerdWallet analysis found that over $2.9 billion in Pell Grants went unclaimed in the 2013-2014 academic year. That’s free money you could be eligible for after submitting the FAFSA.

If you need help completing the application, learn how to fill it out and when you must submit it by.

2. Search for scholarships

Like grants, scholarships provide money that doesn’t need to be paid back. You can get scholarships from your school, nonprofit organizations, or even individuals.

It’s possible to apply for and receive many different scholarships at once to help pay for school. In fact, one woman earned over $50,000 in scholarships.

At Texas A&M, for example, there are robust grant and scholarship initiatives that can help offset the additional costs.

“There are various aid programs that provide funding for low-income students,” said Falks. “Some of these programs are grants at the federal, state, and institutional level. Some scholarships may be designated for low-income students.”

Even if you’re not a low-income student, you might still be eligible for scholarships. Many are awarded based on your grades, athletic accomplishments, or even your duck-calling abilities.

3. Turn to private student loans as a last resort

If you’ve exhausted your federal aid and scholarship options, you can fill the gap by applying for private student loans.

Private loans should be a last resort since they usually have higher interest rates and fewer repayment benefits than federal loans. But they can be a useful tool to pay for school and living expenses so you can complete your degree.

You can compare terms and interest rates from several different lenders in our private student loan marketplace.

Understanding your total cost of attendance

Before deciding where to attend college, make sure you know the total cost of attendance including tuition, room and board, fees, and premiums based on major. Doing your homework now can save you from scrambling to pay your bill later on.

For more information on managing your school expenses, learn how to create a college budget that saves you money.

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College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

(1)All rates shown include the auto-pay discount.  The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

(2)This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

(3)As certified by your school and less any other financial aid you might receive. Minimum $1,000.

Information advertised valid as of 11/4/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.


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  1. Students who get at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) qualify for a one-time cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan. Reward redemption period is limited. Please visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for any applicable reward terms and conditions.
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