Imagine opening a restaurant menu and finding that every dish, from the steak frites to the frisse salad, costs $14.99. It would seem odd, right? After all, buying and cooking a ribeye is more expensive than throwing some lettuce in a bowl. Charging the same for each wouldn't make sense.
Yet, that's pretty much how most colleges price their majors. Undergrads pay the same flat rate per credit no matter what they study, even though different courses can require vastly different resources to teach. Giant freshman lectures are cheaper to run per-student than intimate senior seminars, and reading-heavy majors like history are cheaper than lab-oriented disciplines like biology. At New York's state colleges, to give one real-world example, advanced engineering or hard science courses cost more than five times as much to teach than low-level psychology classes. None of this tends to be reflected on tuition bills.
Should it? Would colleges, or students, be better off if higher ed finally nixed one price fits all?
This week, University of Michigan economist Kevin Stange released a new working paper that illustrates what one of the potential downsides of doing so might be. Over the last two decades, a growing minority of schools have in fact experimented with varying tuition by major. A Cornell study (which produced the graph below) found that 41 percent of public doctoral universities have tried charging a premium for at least one program -- usually engineering, business, or nursing. Looking at a sample of these schools, Stange's paper concludes that raising the price of certain majors seems to influence what students choose to study, though not always in predictable ways.