Should an undergraduate studying business pay more than one studying psychology? Should a journalism degree cost more than one in literature? More and more public universities, confronting rising costs and lagging state support, have decided that the answers may be yes and yes.
Starting this fall, juniors and seniors pursuing an undergraduate major in the business school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, will pay $500 more each semester than classmates. The University of Nebraska began charging engineering students a $40 premium for each hour of class credit last year.
And Arizona State University will phase in for upperclassmen in the journalism school a $250 per semester charge above the basic $2,411 tuition for in-state students this fall.
Such moves are being driven by the high salaries commanded by professors in certain fields, the expense of specialized equipment and the difficulties of getting state legislatures to approve general tuition increases, university officials say.
"It is something of a trend," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Even as they embrace such pricing, many officials acknowledge that they are queasy about a practice that appears to value one discipline over another or that could result in lower-income students clustering in less expensive fields.
"This is not the preferred way to do this," said Patrick V. Farrell, provost at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "If we were able to raise resources uniformly across the campus, that would be a preferred move. But with our current situation, it doesn't seem to us that that's possible."
At the University of Kansas, which started charging different prices in the early 1990s, there are signs that the higher cost of majoring in certain subjects is affecting the choices of poorer students.
"We are seeing at this point purely anecdotal evidence," said Richard W. Lariviere, provost and executive vice chancellor at the university. "The price sensitivity of poor students is causing them to forgo majoring, for example, in business or engineering, and rather sticking with something like history."
Private universities do not face the same tuition constraints and for the most part are avoiding the practice, educators say, holding to the traditional idea that college students should be encouraged to get a well-rounded education. Some public university officials say they worry that students who are charged more for their major will stick to the courses in their field to feel that they are getting their money's worth.
Neither the State University of New York nor the Connecticut State University System uses differential pricing, officials say. New Jersey, however, has done so for years, according to a spokesman, Greg Trevor. In the new school year, in-state undergraduates in the general program will pay tuition of $8,541, but engineering and pharmacy students will pay $9,484.80, and business students will pay $8,716.
"I want students in the College of Engineering at Iowa State to take courses in the humanities and to take courses in the social sciences," said Mark J. Kushner, the dean of that college. To address problems like climate change, Kushner said, graduates will need to understand much more than technology. "That's sociology, that's economics, that's politics, that's public policy."