Schools say that shrinking state educational budgets create the need for differential tuition fees.
Schools say that shrinking state educational budgets create the need for differential tuition fees.

In the past, college and university students typically paid tuition and fees based on the number of credits they took each semester. Recently, some schools have implemented a differential tuition fee in addition to charging general tuition to enhance the educational experience beyond bare-bones classroom instruction. For instance, the University of Central Florida charges all in-state undergraduate students $105.07 per credit for tuition along with a $44.20 per credit differential tuition fee, as of 2017-18. Many other schools charge differential tuition for distance learning classes or specialized majors such as engineering, business and nursing that require expensive equipment and technology.

Rationale for Differential Tuition

Upper-level courses tend to have fewer students, making them more expensive to present, and some degrees such as engineering require more material and faculty with specialized experience and education. For example, Michigan Technological University charges differential tuition -- a fee on top of general tuition -- for juniors and seniors or those enrolled in more expensive degree areas. Other schools like the University of South Florida add the fees to all undergraduate students' bills in an attempt to offset the costs of research and high-quality faculty. USF says the higher fees are necessary to provide students with a competitive education. Online courses cost more due to the added production costs such as licensing software, 24/7 tech support and instructional design.

Impact of Differential Tuition

The amount charged for differential tuition varies by school and program. For instance, mechanical engineering students at the University of Central Florida paid $17,947 in differential tuition for two semesters in 2017-18, as compared to UCF English majors who paid $16,358. On average, online classes cost 32.9 percent more in tuition, and 12 percent more in fees, than on campus classes, as reported by Inside Higher Education in 2017. Some studies show that these increased costs affect the numbers of students who enter specialized technical programs. A study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research noted that both business and engineering enrollments dropped after these programs added differential tuition fees -- as much as 1.1 percent for engineering. Increased financial aid failed to mitigate the concerns students had about the costs, and women and minorities in particular avoid programs with higher price tags, according to the study.

Differential Tuition Hardship

Students concerned about the cost of differential tuition can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and meet with an adviser in the campus financial aid office for information on all types of aid, including campus jobs, grants and scholarships. Online scholarship finders like Fastweb are also very helpful. Students in specialized majors also tend to make more money than liberal arts graduates over the course of a lifetime, which can help with loan repayment.