At the UCLA studio of the American Society of Civil Engineers, undergraduates are engaged in such difficult extracurricular projects as designing and building a 20-foot-long concrete canoe to race against other California college teams.
But the young engineers face a potentially tougher challenge as University of California leaders consider a plan to charge these students more for their undergraduate education than most others at the university.
As part of a plan to plug UC's battered budget, the regents may vote as early as next month on the controversial, tradition-breaking proposal to require engineering undergraduates, along with those studying business, to pay $900 more a year than the rest of the student body. That would be in addition to the $2,514 systemwide fee increase all students are likely to see by next fall.
Revenue-hungry UC officials say the two fields were chosen because salaries for their faculty members are significantly higher than the rest and because students majoring in those subjects tend to land well-paid jobs after graduation. And they point out that nearly half of all U.S. public universities have taken similar steps, with many joining the trend recently because state funding for higher education has declined during the recession.
Engineering students, however, hope the idea doesn't float.
Devon Laduzinsky, president of the civil engineering club, said the proposed extra fee on upper-division engineering and business undergraduates would be an unfair burden that might discourage some students from majoring in the fields. He also said the regents should not assume that all students in the two majors would easily be able to pay back additional loans .
"I think engineering students have it hard enough. We have more homework. Why would we have to pay more for that? Why not cut us a break?" said Laduzinsky, 22, a fourth-year student who said he was speaking for himself and not the group.
UC graduate and professional schools, including law and pharmacy, for years have charged a range of prices, some sharply higher than others. But except for modest lab fees, all undergraduates pay the same basic UC education costs.
A change, critics contend, would bring market pricing models to undergraduate education and extend what they decry as the privatization of California's public universities. Two-tier fees, they contend, also could create resentment among UC students.
The 10-campus university is reluctantly studying many ways to cope with cuts in state funding even if some ideas make people uncomfortable, explained Lawrence H. Pitts, the UC system's interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. "There are things being considered today that nobody ever thought were necessary to consider before," he said.
Pitts described the proposed extra $900 for upper-division engineering and business students as a form of user fee akin to the higher visitor expenses at state parks. "It is a rational and reasonable source of income," he said, adding that lower-cost majors, such as political science, in effect subsidize engineering and business classes.
UC officials estimate that about 17,000 upper-division engineering and business students, generally juniors and seniors, will be affected if the regents approve the current proposal and that UC would net about $10 million after $5 million in additional financial aid is distributed.
Officials said details of the plan may be changed, however, before the regents discuss it in November; in future years, it could be expanded to other costly majors, including music and film.
Nearly half of public research universities in the nation charge extra for at least one undergraduate major, according to a 2008 study by Glen R. Nelson, associate vice president of financial administration for the University of Wisconsin system. Very rare 20 years ago, such extra charges have become more common since 2003 as state funding for higher education has decreased, Nelson said in a recent interview.
Public universities in Arizona, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Colorado and Wisconsin are among those with the additional fees. The average national differential is about 11%, with about 14% for business and engineering, according to Nelson's study, which was done for his doctorate at the University of Nebraska. (UC's surcharge would be about 9% above the $10,302 proposed for all undergraduates next year, not including room, board and campus-based extras.) Architecture, nursing and music are other fields with frequent surcharges.
Nelson said he was concerned that such pricing would lead some undergraduates to avoid the higher-fee majors even if the college promised extra financial aid for needy students. "Do we have an obligation to allow a young person to come and get a degree in any field they want at the bachelor's level, or are we really saying that they should pick something from a list because it's more affordable?" he asked.