Students—and experts—can't figure out your tuition prices

Non-transparent policies are especially harmful for underserved students

If experts are baffled by many schools' tuition prices, imagine how confused students and their families must be. Gregory C. Wolniak, a clinical associate professor of higher education at New York University, spoke with the Chronicle of Higher Education about the confounding nature of differential-tuition policies. 

Setting tuition prices based on students' majors or year of progress toward a degree has become an increasingly common practice at colleges and universities. According to Wolniak, institutions generally adopt differential-tuition policies for three reasons:

  • To align tuition for instruction costs;
  • To encourage students to enter certain majors; and
  • To align tuition with students' ability to pay after graduating. 

Comparing linear and tiered tuition models

But tuition can vary widely—up to 40% at some institutions. And students may not understand the rationale behind differential-tuition policies.

"It's really a problem when you start to consider that these practices considerably increase the complexity for students making decisions based on what it will cost them to achieve their degree," Wolniak says. Further, "We don't know what effects [differential-tuition policies are] having in terms of institutional resources or—arguably more importantly—in terms of student decision-making and college access for traditionally underrepresented students," Wolniak says.

Wolniak led a study analyzing the websites of 143 public institutions for information regarding differential tuition for the 2015-2016 academic year. The researchers found that less than half of the institutions studied were transparent about their practices.

"Imagine how difficult that would be for the average prospective college student," Wolniak says. "Imagine the difficulty for first-generation college students."

According to Wolniak, such information is often found in hard-to-spot parts of an institution's website, such as:

  • In footnotes to a table;
  • Under a vague label; or
  • Through a link to a downloadable form. 

It's not these policies so much as the way that they're presented that complicates admissions for students, he says.

"Colleges should be making it abundantly clear to prospective students what the education they choose will cost them, across majors and across years," Wolniak says. "We would never expect somebody to sign on the dotted line in mortgaging a home or financing a vehicle without clear information on costs" (Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/16). 

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