What if public universities charged tuition at different rates according to how much each student’s courses cost the institution to teach?

President Obama at Ohio State last month. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais — Associated Press)

“Differential tuition” as a pricing concept doesn’t get much discussion in higher education; it’s easy to get lost in the variables. But Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University and a national higher education leader, says he’s thinking about it. “We do have to start differentiating tuition costs,” he said, in a visit to the Post this week.

Maybe the practice isn’t so uncommon as we think.

A recent survey by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, reported in Inside Higher Ed, found 143 public institutions that had differential tuition policies, meaning that they charge different rates for students with different majors.

Differential tuition is most common in doctoral institutions, the report found, with the highest surcharges in nursing, business and engineering, all fields that reward students with relatively high pay.

Tuition surcharges can be controversial, but they might also be the only way an institution such as Ohio State can tactfully recoup some of the money it’s losing by subsidizing the education of in-state students.

A quick read of the Ohio State Web site suggests that the institution already charges varying fees for students in different majors and programs. But the basic undergraduate tuition appears to be fixed. Ohio residents pay $19,926 in tuition and living expenses this year, for an education that costs closer to the $35,000 paid by nonresidents.

There has been much talk of how universities might recover the money they’re losing in an era of declining state support. The usual answer is to raise tuition; but schools that enact steep increases get pushback from parents and politicians.

Another tack is to jack up tuition for nonresidents and to increase their numbers on campus, because nonresidents generally pay the full cost of their study. But this can upset resident students, who find it correspondingly harder to get in.

Some higher-education thinkers have proposed progressive tuition: charging families on a sliding scale according to each one’s ability to pay. Top private universities already do this, in effect, with blanket need-based aid policies.

But Gee doesn’t think progressive tuition would work in Ohio. One of Ohio State’s peers, Miami University, already tried progressive tuition and gave it up after a few years.

“I’m a low tuition guy,” Gee said. At $9,711, Ohio State tuition is lower than the rate at Penn State or Michigan, but higher than at the University of Maryland.