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LINCOLN — An engineering student likely will make significantly more money after college than an English major.
So the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is proposing a new tuition structure to allow it to charge engineering students significantly more for a bachelor's degree than it charges English majors.
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman is scheduled to present a “differential tuition” proposal to the NU Board of Regents Friday.
Specific details are being kept under wraps until Friday's meeting. But the proposal is expected to allow UNL, for the first time, to charge more tuition for some undergraduate programs than for others.
It would be a watershed departure from the concept that all Nebraska resident undergraduates should pay the same tuition for their degrees — currently $198.25 per credit hour — no matter what they study.
UNL previously dipped its toe into this water, however, by enacting a $40 per credit hour fee for engineering classes in 2007. Unlike traditional laboratory fees often charged for certain classes, the fee was not directly linked to a specific classroom expense.
Friday's presentation is listed as an information item. The tuition proposal likely will be a component of the budget proposal up for a vote by the regents in June.
Charging different tuition rates for different courses of study is a growing trend among public research universities across the country.
According to research by Glen Nelson, senior vice president of finance and administration for the Arizona Board of Regents, only five institutions used the practice for undergraduate students before 1988.
As of this year, 57 percent of 162 public research institutions did so, including the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.
According to Nelson, 18 institutions have adopted differential tuition based on academic programs in the past three years. Nelson, then a financial officer for the Oregon University System, studied the issue while earning his doctorate from UNL in 2008.
Business and engineering are the two programs most frequently subject to higher tuition rates, Nelson found. On average, the 2008 study found that business students pay 14 percent more tuition at colleges that have adopted differential tuition policies; engineering students pay 15 percent more.
That's essentially adding the cost of an extra semester to students pursing those degrees, he said.
The Iowa institutions began charging different tuition rates in 2006. Iowa State veterinary and engineering students were among the first to be hit with higher rates.
Patrice Sayre, chief budget officer for the Iowa Board of Regents, said such proposals get close scrutiny.
Common reasons for approving them include rising costs, the need to attract top faculty or equipment needs.
“It has to be something very specific why they want to increase it — it's never just that these people will make more money when they get out of college,” she said. “It has to be more than that.”
NU Regents Randy Ferlic of Omaha and Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons, both members of the board's academic affairs committee, said they've been told about Perlman's plan but declined to provide much detail before Friday's meeting.
Ferlic said it would involve engineering classes and possibly others. Neither regent revealed how much tuition would be increased in the affected programs.
“It's a way of taxation, to my mind,” Ferlic said. “It's a tax on people who want to go into fields that have higher-yielding salaries. I don't necessarily think it's a good thing, but it's a reality that's occurring across the country.”
Hassebrook said he sees it as way to avoid steep tuition hikes for all students. The NU system could be looking at a base tuition increase of 4 percent to 7 percent next year, according to some reports.
“Differential tuition is an alternative ... for fields of studies where students will have strong earnings and the capacity to take on more debt, or where there's a special case for investing more in a particular field,” Hassebrook said.
Universities have gone to different tuition rates for a number of reasons. Some, in an effort to serve more students without building more facilities, use different tuition rates to encourage students to take more late afternoon and night classes. Higher tuition is charged for classes taught during more-popular hours.
Others charge lower rates for freshman students or lower-level courses, because those courses cost less to teach and tend to compete with lower-cost community college offerings.
The practice has been adopted less frequently, if at all, at private universities, according to Patrick Borchers, vice president for academic affairs at Creighton University in Omaha.
“It's never been under serious consideration here,” he said. “Whether you're coming in to be a history major or a physics major or an energy technician, the price is the same.”
But he noted that the financial issues facing a private university like Creighton, with its significantly higher tuition rate, are different than those facing a publicly supported university like UNL.
The NU regents approved a policy in 2005 allowing differential tuition rates. So far it's been used primarily to allow different tuition rates at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
For example, the pharmacy, physical therapy and nursing programs all have different tuition rates, some varying by the student's year in the program.
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