Differential Pricing in University Education

Traditionally universities have charged every student the same tuition/price regardless of major. Under budget pressure, however, differential pricing is becoming more common. Differential pricing is tending to reduce the peculiar cross-subsidies that currently exist as pointed out in a new working paper by Kevin Stange (earlier version):

Higher education in the United States is heavily subsidized, both through direct support for institutions by state governments and private donors, and through federal and state support
directly to students. There are also substantial differences in the extent of subsidization across
institutions and sectors, with students at selective private institutions more heavily subsidized
than those at less selective institutions(Winston 1999). Less commonly noticed, however, is that
there are also large cross-subsidies between students within the same institutions due to the
conventional practice of charging similar tuition fees to all undergraduate students regardless of
the cost of instructing them. The cost of instruction differs tremendously between upper and
lower division coursework and across programs even within institutions. For instance, recent
analysis of cost data from four large state post-secondary systems (Florida, Illinois, New York‐
SUNY, and Ohio) indicated that upper division instruction costs approximately 40% more per
credit hour than lower division instruction, and that upper-division engineering, physical science,
and visual/performing art was approximately 40% more costly than the least costly majors
(SHEEO, 2010). In fact, an earlier but more extensive cost study found that more than three-fourths of the variance in instructional cost across institutions is explained by the disciplinary
mix within an institution (U.S. Department of Education 2003). The consequence is that lower division students subsidize upper-division students and students in costly majors are subsidized
by those in less expensive ones.

This pattern of cross-subsidization generally runs counter to differences in post-schooling
earnings and ability to pay. Lower division includes many students who eventually drop out,
while students that have advanced to upper division are more likely to graduate and earn more.
Engineering, science, and business majors tend to earn more and have higher returns than
education and humanities majors, even after controlling for differential selection of major by
ability (Arcidiacono 2004).

I have argued for targeting education subsidies to the majors that are most likely to have the greatest positive spillovers. Differential pricing moves prices closer to costs which opens up the possibility for more rational pricing but notice that it can in some cases move prices away from optimal subsidy levels.

Hat tip: Dubner at Freakonomics.


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