Differential Tuition: Why Your Choice of Major Could Cost You Big

 July 24, 2020
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Thinking about a liberal arts degree? Or maybe engineering? How about economics? Picking a college major is a big decision, and can have a real impact on your post-graduation path. However, you also might pay more depending on which degree you decide to pursue, because of something called differential tuition.

Differential tuition – in which the cost of tuition and fees varies depending on your major – is a growing trend in colleges. Here’s what you need to know about the differential tuition model, and how it could affect your own college costs:

What is differential tuition?

Schools that use a differential tuition model base tuition costs on factors such as your field of study and the market value of your degree, student demand for the major and the cost of instruction. So, for example, if you plan to major in a STEM field, you may see your tuition rates, or fees, rise based on these factors, depending on your school and your specific program. Differential tuition may refer to your total tuition, or it may be the supplementary amount added to your base tuition rate.

For example, a 2017 study (led by researchers from New York University, Arizona State University and University of Louisville) found that the base total cost of attendance for state residents attending school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at the time was $15,438 per semester.

However, if you were studying chemistry or life sciences, your bill would have jumped to $17,940. Over the course of a four-year program, that would add over $20,000 to your college costs (and that’s without calculating year-over-year tuition and fee hikes).

Similarly, the University of Maryland states on its website that students in its business and engineering schools, or those who declare majors in the Department of Computer Science, are charged differential tuition. They also note that differential tuition will only be charged to students who have earned 60 or more credits.

For the 2019-2020 academic year, the differential tuition charge for full-time students was $1,498 per semester, while the charge for part-time students was $118 per credit, according to the university’s website.

Why do schools charge more for certain majors?

As noted above, there are several reasons a school may choose to charge differential tuition, including if a particular major is in high demand or has a higher or lower market value. Schools may also need to charge more for some majors in part because they are pricier. An engineering program, for example, needs more advanced technology and labs than an English program. By tailoring pricing according to major, schools may also avoid across-the-board tuition hikes.

“Differential tuition allows for enhancements to the learning experience,” said Delisa Falks, assistant vice president for scholarships and financial aid at Texas A&M. “This could include extra course sections, new computers and equipment, extra lecturers and study abroad programs.” She added that a portion of the funding is used to provide grants and scholarships to students.

Meanwhile, the University of Maryland says that “to make sure we can welcome students from all backgrounds, we use differential tuition to provide financial aid to the students who need it most.”

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

How can you 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, look at these three sources as a way to make up the tuition differential:

1. Complete the FAFSA for aid, grants and federal loans
2. Search for scholarships
3. Turn to private student loans if necessary

1. Complete the FAFSA for aid, grants and federal loans

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 federal grants.

Unlike loans, grants don’t need to be paid back, making them a valuable tool to pay for school. The more grants you have, the less student debt with which you will graduate. If you need help completing the application, here’s information on how you can 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 or non-federal grants 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. See this story on how one woman earned more than $50,000 in scholarships.

At Texas A&M, 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 may be eligible for scholarships. Many are awarded based on your grades, athletic accomplishments, field of study or even such obscure things as your duck-calling abilities. Go here to explore 10 scholarship tools to help you find money for college.

3. Turn to private student loans if necessary

If you’ve exhausted your federal aid and scholarship options, you can fill the gap by applying for private student loans. Private loans have fewer repayment benefits than federal loans, and you generally have to have good credit to get favorable interest rate terms. But private loans may be a useful tool to help you pay for school and living expenses, depending on your circumstances.

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

How can you deal with the 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 an unpleasant surprise later. Keep in mind as well that, even if you choose a more expensive major, you may be able to save money through grants, scholarships and student loan forgiveness programs, which are generally aimed at people who choose to use their degrees to serve at-need populations.

For more information on managing your school expenses, learn how to make — and stick to — a student budget in college.

Rebecca Stropoli contributed to this report

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