For most college-bound students and their families, the cost of tuition is an important consideration. It’s also very confusing. The cost of a college education includes tuition, fees, room and board (an outdated term which means housing and meals), travel expenses, and books and supplies. All of these are rolled into a college’s estimated Cost of Attendance, or COA.

A tuition issue which is getting more attention lately is Differential Tuition. Schools that use a differential tuition model base tuition costs on factors such as your field of study, the market value of your degree, student demand for the major and the cost of instruction. This means, for example, that English, Business and Engineering majors may pay three different tuition amounts. 

Currently, students enrolled in the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Arts & Sciences, whether studying English or Chemistry, for example, pay the same tuition, while those in Business; Engineering; Media, Communication & Information; and Music pay higher rates. Recently, the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents approved a proposal to modify the Boulder campus’s tuition schedule into four tiers, as seen below. The new tuition schedule, if approved by the state legislature, would take effect in Fall 2022. Under it, Arts & Sciences students studying natural sciences, such as Chemistry, Biology, and Physics, would pay a tuition different from A&S students studying English or History.

Tiered Tuition Levels (Fall 2022) Areas of Study (Undergraduate) 2022-23 In-State Tuition
Tier 1 (base tier) Arts & Humanities; Social Sciences; Program in Exploratory Studies; Education; Music $11,040


Tier 2 Communication, Media, Information; Environmental Design $12,816
Tier 3 Engineering; A&S Natural Sciences $14,592
Tier 4 Business $16,512


CU isn’t the only university system with differential tuition. In fact, a 2017 study led by Gregory Wolniak of New York University found “Sixty percent of public research universities now assess tuition based on students’ year of study, major, or both.” At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for instance, undergraduates in the College of Business were charged 42 percent higher in-state tuition, about $5,000 more a year, than undergraduates studying, say, English. Over the course of four years, a Business student would pay $20,000 more in tuition.

 Colleges that have implemented differential tuition say they have done so to cover the costs of expensive programs. And in some states, this model has prevented across the board tuition increases. However, those opposed say charging more for degrees in STEM, Nursing or Business may drive students away from certain fields and reduce the pool of qualified applicants. Others worry differential tuition may adversely impact low-income students, pushing them away from majors that lead to lucrative careers.

In my view, Differential Tuition is here to stay and will probably become more prevalent. What does that mean? I wouldn’t suggest choosing a major based on the relatively small differences in tuition. However, like everything related to college finances, it’s important to have a clear picture and understand exactly how much you’ll be expected to pay up front.