Why Online University Courses Won’t Be Cheaper This Fall


California State University made waves last month when it announced that the majority of courses at its 23 campuses will be offered online this fall. In the days following the news, students – and in some cases, paying parents – caught on social networks ask if CSU would reduce tuition fees because “online is cheaper”.

Seventy-nine percent of students answered “no” when asked whether the tuition fees for online or hybrid courses should be the same as for face-to-face courses, according to one. recent Niche survey. Some academics also supported that the coronavirus will even help reduce the cost of higher education, as institutions are forced to adapt their economic model to virtual classes. And last week, the student government at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte passed a resolution urging campus leaders to offer reduced tuition fees to students who are enrolled entirely online.

So, should you expect a lower bill this fall if your college puts all courses online? Not necessarily, experts say.

The perception that online courses should be cheaper is due to a number of factors. Some public institutions have made a name for themselves by offering affordable online degrees (and even then, online programs aren’t much cheaper than tuition fees for in-person courses).

“Institutions like Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University that have built business models around online education have done so by realizing economies of scale and investing in national marketing campaigns in such a way. important, ”says Justin Ortagus, professor of education at the University of Florida. “This is not a viable strategy for most universities.”

The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) – those low-cost open-access courses that have been touted as a way to do Higher Education accessible to all – also gave the impression that e-learning should cost less.

“Students ask: Why should I pay thousands of dollars for courses that I can take for free on Coursera? Says Aswin Pranam, who teaches continuing studies online at both Stanford University and Brandeis University.

But the reality is that a well-designed online training course can actually cost more than its face-to-face equivalent, especially at the start.

“High-quality online courses take a considerable amount of time to develop before they can be offered for the first time, and that staff time adds up,” says Ortagus. In addition to the costs associated with new technologies and online course materials, these courses require input from a variety of people including instructional designers, content experts, production specialists, multimedia specialists, and support staff. extra, he said.

In today’s world of COVID-19, many higher education institutions are also facing unprecedented income shortfalls and have to pay salaries and infrastructure costs regardless of their plans to open in the fall. Salaries and benefits represent, on average, nearly 55% of total spending at four-year colleges, according to government data.

“Their fixed costs don’t go away just because students are far from campus,” explains Pranam.

The consensus is that families are unlikely to see reduced tuition fees this fall if their campus goes virtual. Online courses can cost less per student, Ortagus says, but only if they have a large enrollment or are offered consistently over time so that colleges can recoup the initial cost of developing the course. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight – or by August.

At the same time, it is reasonable not to pay fees for campus facilities such as recreation buildings that students cannot access, which will have another impact on institutional income, Ortagus adds.

What does effective online education look like?

Many students felt left behind when their high schools and colleges abruptly switched to distance learning in March. Many teachers and professors had no previous experience teaching online and had a few weeks at best during spring break to rethink their courses. As Robert Dammon, Dean of Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, says, “Not all online training is created the same way.” What the students – and the parents who were helping them – experienced this spring was an emergency response to a global pandemic.

“Everything they did in class, they just did it on Zoom,” Dammon says. “It’s completely ineffective in many ways for online education.”

Based on her experience at Carnegie Mellon, Dammon says the most effective model is a combination of asynchronous one-on-one learning, synchronous online chats with active learning, and ideally some form of face-to-face interaction. But this model is not cheap. Class sizes should be reduced and teachers can actually spend more time interacting with students.

“There are no economies of scale,” says Dammon.

Thomas Waite, CEO of K16 Solutions, understands why parents don’t want to pay $ 50,000 a year for their students to sit in the basement and attend Zoom University.

“Zoom may be distance learning, but it’s not online education,” he says.

Waite adds that institutions need to be clear about the type of “online education” they offer: will the courses be synchronous, asynchronous or hybrid? Waite suggests families ask their colleges and universities whether or not they have an instructional design team that helps teachers learn literacy online and what type of professional development teacher is available.

Some institutions will be primarily online, while others are considering hybrid models. David Feldman, professor of economics at the College of William & Mary, says he expects there to be a lot of experimentation. “(Colleges) want to be as close as possible to the face-to-face experience, while mitigating the risk of viruses.”

Think about what you pay (even if the courses are online)

Although the majority of colleges and universities say they are plan to physically reopen their campuses in the fall, some institutions, including Harvard University, have already followed Cal State’s lead and announced that they will be offering most of the classes practically in August.

If this is the case with your college, experts advise families to think about what they are really paying. “The university degree remains the most reliable tool to progress upwards – this will not change in the short term,” said Pranam.

CSU Chancellor Timothy White told families he understood they felt they were losing part of the college experience. “But that hiatus can be a hiatus for, say, 20% or 25% of your undergraduate college years,” he says. “It’s an adaptation to deal with the resolution of this global pandemic. If that means you can’t be on campus for a semester or two, that’s unfortunate, but that doesn’t take away from the college experience.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the name of the Dean of Tepper Business School, Robert Dammon.

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