Computer Science Tuition Could Rise Faster than Other Degrees Under New WA Rules

6/8/11Follow @curtwoodward

With a hot market for their skills and employers who offer top-notch salaries and benefits, should computer science students pay more for their bachelor’s degree than theater or history majors? In Washington state, the answer could soon be yes.

Historically, undergraduates in this state have paid flat tuition rates based on the number of credits they’re earning. For example, a Washington resident taking a full-time load of classes would pay $8,122 in tuition this year at the University of Washington, no matter which bachelor’s degree they’re pursuing.

Those flat rates were set under previous state law, which gave the Legislature the exclusive power to set tuition for in-state undergrads. But a new law approved this week by Gov. Chris Gregoire gives universities broad power to set tuition rates on their own for all students—opening the door for varying undergraduate tuition rates.

“I don’t expect the institutions to jump whole-hog into this model the first year. It will take a little bit of thought and study and reflection,” says state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who was the main sponsor of the tuition flexibility law. But he also says the old flat-rate model is “just wildly economically inefficient,” and doesn’t give policy-makers a good idea of what it will cost to improve education in particular disciplines.

“It’s extremely difficult from an efficiency point of view for us in Olympia to figure out how an institution should cross-subsidize programs,” Carlyle says. “One-size-fits-all, top-down, Olympia-centric is just not good policy anymore.”

With flat tuition rates, the less-expensive students are effectively subsidizing the education of their peers in more expensive fields. An English major, for instance, pays the same as a student studying engineering, chemistry, or computer science, which are much more expensive to teach because of higher faculty salaries, special equipment, and other costs.

Freshmen are also generally cheaper to educate than seniors, since the younger students take survey courses packed with other students, while the older ones are in smaller groups with more specialized subjects. It’s also assumed that the cost will be less of a burden for students entering higher-paid professions. Those factors already help drive the variability in tuition rates for graduate degrees in Washington.

While some university leaders have publicly discussed the issue, it doesn’t appear that any school is poised to imminently move to a “differential tuition” model for undergrads. Washington State University, for example, just announced that it was increasing next year’s resident undergradate tuition by a flat rate of 16 percent—the baseline rate assumed in the state budget.

But faced with back-to-back state budgets that were hammered by the Great Recession, it may be an attractive option to help sustain the highest-cost and highest-demand majors in the years ahead. The boards of Western Washington University and the UW are set to consider their new tuition rates later this week, although UW officials aren’t expected to make a decision until the end of June.

If Washington schools do eventually make the leap to differential tuition rates for undergrads, they would have plenty of company: One widely cited study found that more than half of U.S. public research universities now charge different tuition rates for at least one undergraduate program.

Higher tuition has become increasingly necessary in Washington because of massive dropoffs in state tax collections following the Great Recession. Voters, hit hard in the pocketbook, have effectively taken tax increases off the table as a solution, including the rejection last fall of a proposed income tax on the wealthy that would have sent more money to education.

That means more user fees, for everything from state parks to college degrees. As this extremely detailed UW policy brief on the topic points out, “as the price of attendance continues to rise and employment prospects diverge, targeting incremental tuition increases based on programs may be more reasonable than spreading the increase evenly across all students.”

Under the state budget recently approved by lawmakers, higher tuition rates help offset the cut in state spending so that higher education funding is only about 2 percent below the level expected to maintain current services. That means drastic steps, like the elimination of whole programs, probably aren’t on the table, as was feared earlier this year by Western Washington University’s computer science department.

“Western will not be eliminating the computer science department during this budget cycle,” says Paul Cocke, the school’s communications director. “Western’s provost is hoping the computer science department will continue working on an ambitious program on how the department can best met the needs of the state.” (Full disclosure: Last year, I wrote this freelance article for the school’s official magazine, for which I was paid.)

The freedom to set tuition comes with strings attached from the state. If any school sets tuition above the 16 percent annual increase foreseen in the budget, it is obligated to also increase the amount of financial aid it provides for students. Annual performance reports are also required from schools, on topics including student debt load and the number of students in science, technology, engineering and math degrees.

“The era of a student showing up, registering for a class on Sept. 1st and, regardless of whether they finish the year or graduate, the university gets a big check and is happy and done—those days are over,” Carlyle says. “There is very real accountability in this legislation that the institutions will struggle to meet.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • TRB

    We already have plenty of “soft” graduates in the UK. Most of them are unemployed and live off state benefits – or work in supermarkets. Don’t give the next generation another incentive… If anything, scolarships should be given to engineering, medical, scientific, mathematical students – they generate real value.

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