Few programs at the University of Washington are as renowned as its engineering programs.
“The Computer Science and Engineering department is one of the top handful of programs in the country,” Norm Arkans, spokesperson for the University of Washington, said this summer. “It depends if you have five fingers or seven fingers.”
Its success spurs a flood of applicants.
“Think about supply and demand,” Arkans said. “We have way more demand for students to get into that program than we can handle.”
If colleges worked like a typical business, there would be a very clear solution: Raise the price of the engineering programs. That would allow the college to hire even more teachers to teach even more students. It would also alleviate the cash-strapped budgets of the institution.
University of Washington and other colleges have been discussing doing just that — but a relatively obscure investment program may stop that from happening.
Right now, the tuition for an English major at the UW is exactly the same for an engineering major, despite the fact that it costs a lot more to educate an engineering student — a great engineering prof is pricier to hire — and the fact that, typically, an engineering graduate will make a lot more money armed with that diploma.
One solution Arkans says the college has been discussing is “differential tuition” — charge engineering students, for example, more than other students.
As the state began slashing the higher-education budget after the recession hit, it gave colleges and universities much more authority to set tuition. In some cases, it just meant tuition overall was skyrocketing. Colleges looked to recruit more out-of-state students to balance their budget, or to dramatically increase the number of students accepted.
Differential tuition could be one more tool in that battle to find enough revenue to run a college. Schools already do it at the graduate level. Getting a master’s degree in education at Gonzaga University, for example, presumably costs less than getting a law degree.
But the problem with implementing it is something called the Guaranteed Education Tuition Program. At its core, it’s a simple investment: You buy credits that increase in value as quickly as the top tuition rate in the state. By the time your student is ready to attend college, the credits will be worth substantially more — and they can be used on any educational expense.
But thanks to the soaring tuition rate, Washington’s GET program is now underwater. With similar programs nationwide falling apart, a committee of Washington legislators has been meeting to discuss how to save the program.
Differential tuition would raise the top tuition rate even more, further increasing the amount the GET program would have to pay out.
“Anyone who currently has GET credits, they have contractual right to get what they [were promised] when they got in,” says Sen. Lisa Brown (D-WA), who bought a few GET credits a few years ago to help pay for her son’s education.
As a result, differential tuition has become a target of the committee.
“Several members of the committee were leaning toward eliminating it,” Brown says. Brown says she’s pushing for a more moderate approach, limiting the use of differential tuition until the GET program problem can be sorted out. She believes GET credits should be tied to the average tuition price in the state, not the very top.
But that still won’t solve the problem of credits that have already been purchased. A contract is a contract. And the pricier tuition gets, the bigger the liability the GET program has on the state.
Arkans says the state is looking at it backwards. Tuition policy, not the GET program, should come first: “You set your tuition policy in a way that makes sense and you adjust your programs that support that.”