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Differential College Tuition Based on Degree Program

February 22, 2021
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WRITTEN BY Dr. Brittany Whitley

The cost of college instruction (tuition) and fees at public postsecondary institutions varies based on state, school and student characteristics. Most public institutions in the United States offer discounted tuition for state residents, and some institutions use differential tuition to vary costs based on degree program or program year. Missouri law (RSMo 173.003) currently limits tuition-setting authority for public higher education institutions by capping the extent to which they can raise tuition and required fees. House Bill 856 proposes a five-year suspension of this law, which would make it possible for Missouri institutions to either uniformly raise tuition rates or implement differential tuition based on degree program. While differential tuition is considered a more transparent alternative to the existing student fee structure, it may limit access to certain fields (e.g., STEM) for minoritized groups, including women, low-income students and students of color.


  • In addition to state support for higher education, tuition-setting often depends on instructional costs, tuition rates at peer institutions and degree value. Differential tuition would allow institutions to charge competitive tuition rates that align more closely with the specific costs (e.g., faculty, lab equipment) associated with their degree programs.
  • High student fees on top of tuition rates can reduce cost transparency. Complete and accurate information about college costs can improve college enrollment, especially among low-income students.
  • Differential tuition can limit the enrollment of women and students of color in more expensive degree programs and therefore may limit access to certain career paths based on ability to pay for college.


  • Research about tuition setting behavior is typically based on self-reports by institutions and state agencies, and can be subject to bias and misreporting.
  • Additional research is needed to understand how differential tuition policies impact student (e.g., degree completion, debt) and institutional (e.g., diversity, financial aid distribution) behavior.
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