Many Kansas University students are opposing a special fee proposed to help the engineering school keep up with equipment costs. The fee would put a surcharge, of sorts, on all engineering classes, charging students in those classes an extra $15 for each credit hour.
Engineering school officials say the revenue from the fee is needed to keep equipment up to acceptable levels. Opponents of the fee say it sets a dangerous precedent for "differential tuition." The costs of an education for all KU students, they say, should be shared by all the students. If a fee is necessary, it should be added to the general tuition of KU students.
The "differential tuition" argument isn't a bad one, but it ignores many of the differences that already exist among various majors at the university.
Fine arts majors, for instance, incur major expenses. Musicians must pay for instruments; visual arts students must buy expensive art supplies. And fine arts majors often go into relatively low-paying jobs after graduation. At least engineers can look forward to higher salaries after they earn their degrees.
There also are differences in the salaries received by faculty members in various academic areas of the university. In order to attract top-notch faculty members who might otherwise go into private business or industry, higher salaries often are paid to teachers in such areas as business and engineering. The dean of the KU business school is the highest paid faculty member on the Lawrence campus.
So if their education actually costs a little more and prepares them for jobs that pay a little more than the average student's, wouldn't it be fair to charge engineering students a little more?
First, it would be difficult to draw the line on such fees. Should business students pay more tuition because its more expensive to pay their teachers? Should computer science majors be charged extra tuition because of the equipment required in their classes?
Another key issue is that no student at Kansas University really pays for all of what he or she gets in terms of a higher education. They pay tuition, but that covers only a fraction of the actual cost. The rest is paid for by the taxpayers of Kansas, who, as a whole, put a high value on education in general. There surely are some individual Kansans who think Kansas needs more engineers than journalists, or more teachers than artists, but the point of having a tax-supported university is to let every student receive a liberal education in the field of their choice.
That's why basing fees purely on what major a student chooses to pursue is a distasteful precedent. Other options should be considered. It might be more fair to levy the extra fee only for students who are actually using the equipment in a given semester, or, as one student leader suggests, for the engineering school to simply include the equipment as a line item request on its budget.
Of course, all discussion of special fees probably could be put to rest if the state could find more funds for all facets of higher education, but in the current tight fiscal situation, that option seems unlikely.
At any rate, before they vote on the fee later this month, members of the Kansas Board of Regents should carefully consider the precedent they would be setting and whether that precedent would indeed lead to what the KU student body president referred to as "price tag majors" at Kansas universities.