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Differential Tuition Complex Tuition Policies in American Higher Education

Differential tuition (DT) is the practice by which a university charges a different price to students based on their field of study or year of study. These different rates can be difficult to locate and understand. DT rates can also be referred to by other terms, such as "Enrichment Fees" and "Program Fees".

In the United States, more and more universities are adopting DT policies. In 1991-1992, only 6% of research intensive, public, four-year universities had DT policies. In 2015-2016, over 60% of these institutions had adopted such policies.

For example, at a given institution, base tuition may be $12,500 per academic year for a full-time undergraduate student. However, students majoring in business or engineering may be charged an additional amount, such as $1,000 more per year. DT by major can be assessed to any field, including the fine arts and education.

Students may also be charged more according to their year of study. For instance, juniors and seniors may be charged a higher tuition rate than freshmen and sophomores. Some universities charge DT by both major and year of study. Seniors in engineering may have a higher tuition rate than sophomores in biology who may have a higher rate than freshmen in philosophy.

DT rates can be assessed by the credit hour, semester, or academic year. Each institution determines how it will assess DT to students, as well as how the additional tuition rates are communicated.

Of the universities that have adopted DT policies, some are very upfront and transparent about their DT rates, making the information easy to find and understand. Others are less so, with information hidden on various webpages, in difficult-to-locate documents, and in footnotes.

When examining the tuition rates of a particular college, pay attention to the fine print. Look for links to the Bursar's Office, downloadable files, and more detailed tuition tables to ensure that you have complete information on potential costs of the college or university.

For more information on differential tuition policies, contact:

Casey E. George, Ph.D. - Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration - University of Louisville - caseye.george@louisville.edu

Gregory C. Wolniak, Ph.D. - Associate Professor - Institute of Higher Education - University of Georgia  gwolniak@uga.edu

Glen R. Nelson, Ph.D. - Vice President for Finance and Business Affairs - Idaho State University nelsglen@isu.edu

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