During the last round of redesign, I removed the tuition information from the prospective students section of the website. The way the University of Washington handles graduate tuition had become so hard to grok that I didn’t feel like it was worth the risk of confusing them. As well, the individual program websites had tuition info specifically for that program. (Unlike many schools, you don’t apply to the school itself but to the program; we don’t do admissions at the top level, only assist in recruiting and financial aid.)

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: We have three tiers of graduate school tuition, and we have four kinds of graduate degrees. PhDs pay Tier I tuition, the lowest level. MHA (Master of Health Administration) students pay Tier II tuition, the mid-grade cost. MS and MPH (Master of Public Health) students pay Tier III, the highest tier. And no, it’s not silver-gold-platinum (though, honestly, if you’re paying 20% more for a degree, shouldn’t you get bonus miles or something?)

Earlier this month, I got some scuttlebutt from other schools of public health that their one chief criticism of the school site was, yup, no tuition information. So I set about trying to figure out how to add that information back into our prospective student package without confusing the heck out of prospectives.

I went to the UW tuition website and clicked on Tuition Rates.

Which sent me here, a page on the Office of Planning and Budgeting site.

The tuition tables are all PDFs. Untagged PDFs that fail the basic accessibility check in Acrobat (whatever that means).

In the tuition table in the “Annual Tuition and Fees” PDF, the tiers are listed with no explanation or hint as to what they are:

An image of the PDF for UW tuition info. Red arrows highlight "Tier I," "Tier II," and "Tier III" graduate tuition rates, but there is no explanation as to what these tiers signify.

An image of the PDF for UW tuition info.

You want to know what these tuition tiers signify? Well, you need ANOTHER PDF for that. And that PDF doesn’t list our MHA program as being in Tier II; in fact, it’s not even listed at all.

So, what can I do with this mess? I’m not even sure. Create my own tuition page for the school — one I’ll have to update every single year with new tuition data, meaning I’ve created yet another data island in the university’s infamous web archipelago of data? Yuck. Alternatively, I could attempt a long exposition of how the university’s tuition system works, which means I’m doing their work for them, and that doesn’t make me happy.

I think the third solution may be the best — yell at the Tuition Office. A lot. Until they fix this mess.

But this is inexcusable for a major public university. Sequestering this data in inaccessible PDFs is dumb enough, but then separating the crucial expository data into another PDF, one with too little actual expository information to explain which tier governs which degree?

Compare with Penn State’s tuition site. They have a much more complicated branch campus system, but you’re still two clicks from getting correct tuition information.

There are three fundamental questions every prospective student needs answers to before they apply — Does this university offer the program I desire, is this the right university/program for me, and how much will it cost. The first and second questions are ones I can answer on my level. The third, though, in a huge school like this, is one I can’t answer — those answers are owned by people higher up. So, we depend on these higher-ups to provide those answers in the most usable, accessible way possible for every prospective student looking to come to our university. When they don’t, we all suffer.

The solution is simple: Move the tables out of PDFs into HTML. We’re talking about a 1-2 hour job once a year that would greatly benefit everyone, especially disabled students, and would provide greater clarity for prospective students. This isn’t “create a web application from scratch” territory, this is “build a table in Dreamweaver/Composer/BBEdit/whatever.” And this isn’t “hire a super-expensive webgeek” work, this is “hand a secretary an HTML book or send him/her to an HTML class” work.

This is frustrating.