Making Tuition More Equitable

Most people agree they shouldn’t have to pay for something they don’t get. That’s pretty simple, but it is a concept that hasn’t caught on yet at some institutions of higher learning.

Colleges and universities usually have complex fee schedules that pigeonhole students into either full-time or part-time categories. In the case of full-time students, that can mean a student with a 21-credit hour course load gets a bargain in comparison to his classmate who carries only 12 hours. Both are charged the same base tuition rate.

Students whose circumstances allow them to load up on classes don’t mind. Again, they’re getting a good deal. But those who may have to work while they go to school, take care of children or otherwise limit the number of classes they take sometimes feel cheated.

A bill in the West Virginia Legislature looks toward making the situation more equitable. It would authorize a pilot program whereby six public colleges and universities are given permission to charge students by the credit hour instead of through a flat tuition table. A student taking 12 credit-hours of classes would pay just 57 percent of the bill received by the 21-hour classmate, for example.

At first glance, it sounds like one of those “Duh!” moments that makes one wonder why it took so long.

But wait. Some analysts warn such a system would mean an increase – perhaps as much as $1,400 per semester – for the average full-time college student. Clearly, it’s a good thing the Legislature is looking only at a pilot program, to see how the envisioned change would work.

Higher education isn’t a solely piece-work system, of course. Colleges and universities must cover overhead, the cost of retaining and keeping quality professors, etc. So tuition rates based solely on a per-credit basis may be unrealistic.

But surely some method can be found to make the system more equitable. Clearly, it should not be used as a scheme to increase revenue. In approving the bill, legislators should make it clear any pilot program institution attempting to do that will be viewed with displeasure when the time comes to dole out state college and university support funding.