Trustees for the Vermont State Colleges are toying with the idea of charging varying tuition rates for different college majors. The idea is to align cost and value, but misconceives the notion of value. Tiered tuitions at the state’s colleges are a bad idea.
Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, has promoted the idea of tiered tuition at Florida’s universities, according to a report in The New York Times, but his intention seems to be economic development. He has suggested that it might make sense to charge less for science and engineering majors in order to foster learning in fields that would provide value for the state’s economy. (It is ironic that he would push the expansion of science education at the same time his budget cuts have slashed science faculty at the state’s universities.)
In Vermont, apparently, the aim of tiered tuition is less to promote economic development than to cover the costs of more expensive programs. That might result in higher costs for science and engineering, which require expensive labs and other facilities.
Public education is one of the great foundations for American democracy, including higher education, which offers diverse avenues of advancement. In Vermont, in addition to numerous private colleges, there is the Community College of Vermont, Vermont Technical College and the state colleges at Castleton, Johnson and Lyndon. The University of Vermont remains the state’s flagship institution and under new leadership appears to be placing greater emphasis on serving Vermonters.
But who is to say that one program is worth more than another? For one person pursuit of education in chemistry may fulfill a deep intellectual ambition. For another, the study of English literature may represent the highest educational achievement. If public education is to serve democracy, it must serve an egalitarian ideal that allows each individual to find meaning in his or her way.
Political leaders, mindful of the needs of the economy, often say that the advancement of science and engineering is crucial to the nation’s economic competitiveness. Indeed, UVM’s engineering and medical schools are linchpins in the state’s economic success, and they merit continued promotion and support.
But tuition is paid by individuals, and to give one individual a financial advantage over another is to undermine the egalitarian character of public education. Society benefits not from turning everyone into scientists, but by allowing each individual to fulfill his or her potential, becoming thoughtful, conscientious citizens. The pursuit of happiness can be defined only individually. Who is to say that music is less important to society than physics? A musician or a physicist whose ambitions have been thwarted by high education costs is a loss to society.
If the colleges need to raise more money, and if higher tuitions are one of the ways of doing so, having all students share that burden equally underscores the egalitarianism of public education and tells students the school values their choices equally. If biology labs need refurbishing, English majors may have to pay a little more. So will taxpayers all across the state. Those who understand their responsibilities as citizens gladly accept that obligation.
Higher education has been plagued in recent years by the same economic disparities that have wracked the larger economy. As it has become more expensive, it has moved farther out of reach of more people. The skyrocketing tuition increases of recent years have partly gone to fuel an arms race among colleges striving to build fancy facilities that will allow them to compete for top students. That race seems to be coming to an end.
Higher tuitions have forced colleges to increase financial aid for the majority of students who cannot afford to pay the full bill. This model has created a tiered tuition system based on need, which makes more sense than charging different rates according to one’s course of study. The high-tuition, high-financial-aid model is not sustainable, but neither is a society warped by economic inequality. Scattering varied price tags on the diverse offerings of our colleges is not a solution.