Financing College Diversity: Is It a Case of 'Robbing Peter to Pay Paul'?

By Michael, Steve O. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, December 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

Financing College Diversity: Is It a Case of 'Robbing Peter to Pay Paul'?


Michael, Steve O., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Many readers may be shocked to learn that some of this nation's colleges and universities practice price or tuition discrimination. They may even more stunned to learn that it's in the best interest of these institutions to adopt such a policy--which charges different students at the same university in the same academic program different tuition--as a strategy. The goal may be to achieve a maximum enrollment per year, generate funds for a specific program or reach a targeted student demographic. Private institutions have used these practices effectively for years to support programs such as athletics. And the number of public institutions using price discounting to fund specific programs is increasing.

It's within this context that we should view the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse's proposal to raise tuition fees to pay for diversity programs. The regents want to charge students an extra $220 per semester over three years to generate financial aid money for an additional 1,000 low-income students and to hire more professors. While the proposed pilot program has been derided as a "diversity surcharge," students and the public at large are getting more out of the deal than they think.

Wisconsinites and others should ask themselves this: How much is higher education worth? How much would you pay for it? Our families, the local community, the state, the nation and the whole world benefit tremendously from the investment in higher education. This is because education serves both the private and the public good. But the question remains, how much is the public willing to pay for its share of the benefits? While the calculations of private/public returns on higher education investment are full of approximations, there is no denying the tact that colleges and universities exist to attract human talents, develop these talents and send them forth in service to society. However, human talents are randomly distributed among the population, not confined to one economic status, race or ethnicity, gender, nationality or religion. Therefore, the most important goal of colleges and universities is to provide access.

What happens when universities fail in this goal? Look at the negative correlation between educational attainment and incarceration rates. There is a reason why our prisons are not littered with people with advanced degrees and why a large number of high school dropouts are serving time. In short, society pays a price for an uneducated citizenry.

Institutions within the University of Wisconsin system have the flexibility to charge different tuitions. …

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