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University officials and faculty in Maryland are discussing charging undergraduates in science and engineering more than other students, at a time leaders are emphasizing the need to attract such majors.

The discussions center around possibly instituting a “premium” for students who major in science, technology, engineering and math — commonly known as STEM — because those courses typically have higher costs for faculty and lab equipment than do non-STEM courses.

University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan stressed that no firm plans or proposals have been presented by any university system leaders and that discussions are only at the preliminary stage.

However, the extra annual cost to each STEM undergraduate could run anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. The idea also could clash with the push by President Barack Obama and others, including a number of business leaders, to motivate more students to enter STEM majors and careers.

Among Obama’s intiatives are a $100 million investment from the National Science Foundation to improve undergraduate STEM education, and a push to train 100,000 additional math and science teachers.

In order to get to the point where the board of regents votes on it, any additional tuition for STEM would have to be offset for students in some way, Kirwan said.

“We have to have a very carefully articulated plan of how we would increase finanical aid so that low-income students would not be affected,” he said.

Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has asked the executive committee of the university’s faculty Senate to study the issue, but a spokeswoman for the university said no firm proposals are on the table and discussions are at an early stage.

The practice of differentiating tuition for engineering students, for example, has been used by dozens of major universities nationwide. Florida legislators and university leaders are considering the possibility this year.

In a Tampa Bay Times story Jan. 13, Eric Barron, president of Florida State University, told state lawmakers, “I would charge STEM students more and deliver something better.”

A 2008 study of 165 public research universities by Glen R. Nelson, cited in an article on differentiated tuition the same year by the Washington, D.C.-based American Society for Engineering Education in its journal Prism, found that 30 percent of those universities charged undergraduates a premium to major in engineering.

The premium ranged from a low of 2 percent of base tuition at Utah State University to 45 percent at the University of Illinois. The average was 15 percent.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, 2 percent of mandatory tuition and fees in 2011 for state residents who were undergraduates would have amounted to $168, 15 percent would have been $1,262, and 45 percent would have been $3,787.

For out-of-state students, those figures would have been $497, $3,725 and $11,174, respectively.

Nelson reported that the trend of charging the engineering premium has accelerated since 1988, when only five schools charged differentiated tuition. But more than a dozen university governing boards between 2005 and 2007, after considering the idea, decided not to implement differential tuition.

“The primary reasons for institutions not adopting differential tuition by undergraduate program or major were concern for student access or legislative prohibitions,” Nelson wrote.

In the Prism story he also raised concerns that premiums make it less likely that low-income students enter STEM majors and eventually get high-income STEM jobs, although university officials Nelson spoke to for his report denied this.

Norman Fortenberry, executive director of ASEE, said that while some students could potentially be scared off of STEM majors because of tuition premiums, university leaders could successfully counteract the concerns by explaining the value of the educational experience for students.

Tuition premiums also fairly account for students whose educations cost more, he said, especially at a time when states are providing less financial assistance to public universities.

He compared the situation to medical students who must pay for an expensive education, but later earn high incomes.

“It’s not in anyone’s interest to drive students away,” Fortenberry said.

For now, without split tuition, the university system — and the state in general — appears to be meeting its goals of enrolling more students in the STEM disciplines and creating more STEM jobs.

The number of students in the system enrolled in STEM rose from 28,200 in 2008 to 32,780 last year, according to a report from the state Department of Management and Budget on the fiscal 2013 budget. STEM enrollment is projected to surpass 33,200 next year.

A 2011 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report on the states said: “Maryland remains a center for STEM jobs and high technology companies, ranking 10th in STEM job growth, second in STEM job intensity, and third in high-tech business concentration.”

“We don’t want to just dump more students in there and erode the quality,” Kirwan said.

aujifusa@gazette.net