Study Snapshot: Unmasking College Costs: Challenges in the Era of Differential Tuition Practices

For Immediate Release: April 28, 2017

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Victoria Oms,
(202) 238-3233

Study Snapshot: Unmasking College Costs: Challenges in the Era of Differential Tuition Practices

Study: Unmasking College Costs: Challenges in the Era of Differential Tuition Practices
Authors: Glen R. Nelson (Arizona State University), Gregory C. Wolniak (New York University), and Casey E. George (University of Louisville)

This study will be presented at the AERA 2017 Annual Meeting
Session: Tracing the Labyrinth: Exploring the Interaction Between Campus Governance and Public Policy
Date/Time: Friday, April 28, 10:35 am

  • In recent years, the implementation of differential tuition (DT) practices by colleges and universities—whether in higher-priced fields of STEM and business, or in the liberal arts—has become a prevalent strategy aimed at increasing revenue. DT practices, which are the purposeful variation in undergraduate tuition by major area of study and/or year of enrollment, are increasingly the subject of concern and debate at public institutions across the country.

  • DT policies are often criticized for adding to the complexity of college costs, leading the costs that students face once enrolled to vary unexpectedly from publicly available institutional averages for tuition and costs of attendance found in many college cost calculators, thereby masking the real cost of attendance.

  • For their study, the researchers examined 143 of the 147 institutions identified by the U.S. Department of Education as public four-year, research-intensive institutions that offer undergraduate degree programs.

  • Eighty-six public institutions, representing 60.1 percent of all public, four-year, research-intensive colleges and universities in the U.S., had DT policies in 2015-16. Only 9 (6.3 percent) had such policies in 1991-92.

  • Results indicated that institutions are significantly more likely to have adopted DT policies depending on three specific characteristics: region, land-grant status, and to a lesser extent, average tuition.

  • DT institutions are more likely to be found in the Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Great Lakes regions, and less so in the Southeast and Far West regions. There is also a greater prominence of DT institutions among land-grant institutions.

  • In the most recent academic year studied, researchers found evidence to suggest that institutions that have not adopted DT policies tend to have relatively low in-state tuition, whereas DT-adopting institutions appear somewhat more concentrated among those with medium-to-high in-state tuition.

  • An analysis of how accessible DT information was on university websites found that locating and interpreting institutional tuition data, though seemingly easy or straightforward, was imprecise and varied across individuals. Universal agreement on ease of use was achieved by a team of three researchers for only 44 percent (63 of 143) of institutions.

  • Researchers also found a complicated variety in labels and terminology used on university websites to communicate DT policies. What one institution called “differential tuition” others might advertise as “program fees,” “major fees,” “additional fees,” or “enrichment fees.” While the majority of tuition information was found on financial aid and bursar office websites, some institutions displayed DT information on the websites of their specific colleges.

  • DT policies were often embedded in the main tuition tables but sometimes were communicated in less straightforward ways, including as a footnote to the main tuition table, in explanations of special fees assessed to students, in a linked webpage, and/or in a downloadable PDF file.

  • The researchers call on institutions with DT policies to work toward increased transparency and accessibility in communicating those policies and associated rates to individuals, given that some websites currently require user savviness, recognition of key terms, and navigation to obtain the information.

  • The researchers also highlight the importance of this topic for college access by calling attention to the fact that less transparent and more complex tuition information has disproportionate negative effects on first-generation and lower-income students.

  • This research was supported in part by the Spencer Foundation. 

To receive an embargoed copy of a full paper, or to talk to paper authors, please contact AERA Communications: Tony Pals, Director of Communications,, cell: (202) 288-9333Victoria Oms, Communications Associate,, cell: (505) 850-3907

About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on Facebook and Twitter.