Why online college 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 would be offered online this fall. In the days following the news, students – and in some cases, parents paying for their education – took to social media asking if CSU would lower tuition since “online is cheaper.”

According to a recent Niche survey, 79% of students said “no” when asked if tuition for online or hybrid courses should be the same as for fully in-person courses. Some academics have also argued that the coronavirus will even help lower the cost of higher education as institutions are forced to adapt their business model to virtual classrooms. 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 enrolled entirely online.

So should you expect a lower bill this fall if your college moves all classes 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 significantly cheaper than in-state tuition for in-person classes).

“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 heavily in national marketing campaigns” , 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-source courses that have been touted as a way to make higher education accessible to all – has also created the impression that online learning online should cost less.

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

But the reality is that well-designed online training can cost more than its face-to-face equivalent, especially in the beginning.

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

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

“Their fixed costs don’t disappear just because students are away from campus,” says Pranam.

The consensus is that families are unlikely to benefit from reduced tuition this fall if their campuses go virtual. Online courses can cost less per student, Ortagus says, but only if they have large enrollments or are offered consistently over time so 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’s reasonable not to pay fees for campus facilities like recreation buildings that students can’t access, which will be another hit to institutional revenue, Ortagus adds.

What does effective online training look like?

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

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

Based on his experience at Carnegie Mellon, Dammon says the most effective model is a combination of asynchronous individual learning, synchronous online discussions with active learning, and ideally some form of face-to-face interaction. face to face. But this model is not cheap. Class sizes need to be reduced and professors 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 that families ask their colleges and universities whether or not they have an instructional design team helping teachers learn online literacy and what kind of professional development teacher is given.

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 will be a lot of experimentation. “(Colleges) want to get as close to the face-to-face experience as possible, while mitigating the risk of the virus.”

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

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

If this is the case with your college, experts advise families to think about what they’re actually paying for. “A college degree is still the most reliable tool for upward progression – that won’t change in the short term,” says Pranam.

CSU Chancellor Timothy White told families he understands they felt like they were losing part of the college experience. “But that hiatus can be an hiatus for, say, 20% or 25% of your undergraduate years,” he says. “It’s an adaptation to deal with resolving 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 experience. university.

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

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