Online courses often pricier for students

Nearly half of colleges surveyed didn't know if they made or lost money with online programs.
Nearly half of colleges surveyed didn't know if they made or lost money with online programs.

Fees imposed on college students who take online classes can be more than $1,300 at some schools, according to a new survey claiming that internet-based education is often more costly for students than attending classes on campus.

The one-time registration fees charged to web-based students are not levied on students who take traditional classes, and some online college programs include other charges for course materials and “technology resources and services,” according to a survey of 182 institutions conducted by the Campus Computing Project and Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET). The report was released Oct. 22.

Online students are paying less than their brick-and-mortar peers at 20 percent of the campuses surveyed, while 31 percent are paying the same price, according to the survey. But nearly half of respondents said their online students are paying more for a college education than traditional students.

Online registration fees ranged from $51 in public master’s colleges to $1,316 in private universities. Online students pay an average of $232 in one-time fees, according to the report.

The higher fees for online courses seem to fly in the face of traditional thinking: that online courses are cheaper for schools to produce.

But despite the common belief that online classes cost far less to develop and administer, schools incur a number of extra costs associated with training web-based professors, converting massive amounts of course materials to an online environment, and developing all the marketing, admissions, and recruitment resources that are key to maintaining a viable online program, said Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project and head of the joint study.

“There are pretty hefty commitments … and real costs” for colleges supporting robust web-based learning programs, Green said in an interview. “Those are real costs that are coming from somebody’s budget.”

The WCET survey also documented a frequent transitioning of online education programs in recent years. Nearly three out of 10 colleges and universities have “restructured” their web-based courses in the past two years, and 52 percent expect to adjust their online approach before 2011.

The rapid adjustments by colleges trying to keep pace with the boom in web-based courses have not affected online enrollment. Ninety-four percent of campus officials who responded to the survey reported increases in online enrollment between 2006 and 2009, and 48 percent of schools have seen increases of 15 percent or more.

The steady climb in online education has proven profitable for most colleges during a recession that has forced state and federal lawmakers to slash higher-education funding.

Forty-five percent of responding institutions said their web-based programs reaped a profit in the fiscal year that ended in June, and 27 percent reported their profits were more than 15 percent. Less than 2 percent of institutions said they lost money on web-based educational programs, and nearly half said they didn’t know if the program made or lost money last year. Seven percent said they “broke even.”

“Although institutions know that the rising enrollments in their online programs are generating revenues, they just don’t know if these programs are really making money,” Green said in a statement. “Many campuses have a very hard time with the kind of cost accounting required to assess real profits from online education.”

A nationwide survey published last year by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, titled “Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States,” said 22 percent of American college students took at least one web-based class in the fall 2007 semester, or 3.94 million students. That marked an increase of 12.9 percent from the fall 2006 semester.

During the same period, overall higher-education enrollment increased by only 1.2 percent, according to the report, which surveyed officials from more than 2,500 colleges and universities. In fall 2002–the Sloan Foundation report’s first year–1.6 million students were taking at least one online class, meaning 9 percent of college students were taking online classes. That number eclipsed 2 million in 2004 and topped 3 million in 2005.

The nationwide embrace of web-based curricula, Green said, is a positive sign for education-technology advocates who have pushed for acceptance of college degrees earned online–even if online classes equal or exceed the costs of in-person education.

“The enrollment data … document the official ‘arrival’ of online education,” he said. “These data confirm that campuses confront new operational and managerial challenges as online education moves from the periphery to become a much larger and more significant component of the instructional portfolio for many institutions.”

The survey shows that technology training for faculty members has become more commonplace in higher education. More than half of respondents said faculty who teach web-based courses are required to take technology training. The average mandatory training program lasts 27.5 hours, according to the report.


WCET/Campus Computing Project survey

Sloan Consortium survey

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