The idea that online classes and online degree programs should be more affordable than on-campus classes makes sense in theory. Online programs have no physical classroom spaces to maintain. Classes can be a lot bigger. And the course content, one created, can be recycled until it's in danger of becoming out-of-date.
In practice, however, it's unusual for college students in online classes to pay less than students on campus. In fact, it's not uncommon for online degree programs to actually cost slightly more than traditional, in-person offerings.
The handful of higher education institutions that charge less for online classes (e.g., Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which charges $1,281.50 per credit for undergraduate programs on campus and $320 per credit online) are often able to do so because they've gone all-in on distance learning. SNHU was a small regional school until it invested hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising and student recruitment for its online programs. Today, the school has 130,000 students and is one of the three largest higher-learning institutions in the United States. SNHU's business model is all about scale—something that's not possible for most colleges and universities.
The factors that go into calculating the cost of online college courses are much more complicated than more-students-equals-lower-tuition, however. In this article, we answer the question are online classes cheaper? and cover the following:
One of the most pervasive myths about online degree programs and online schools is that they're less expensive than traditional college programs. It may be a holdover from the rapid rise of online for-profit colleges in the early 2000s. These programs attracted large numbers of students because they were widely advertised, billed as more convenient than studying on campus, and relatively inexpensive. People probably still associate distance learning at the university level with those types of low-cost, poor-outcome programs even though today, nearly all Ivy League schools offer some form of online classes, online certificate programs, or online college degree programs for bachelor's degree and master's degree students.
The popularity of affordable or even free Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, may also have played a role. These open-access classes (sometimes developed and administered by universities) are especially common in the tech world, where best practices, techniques, and tools evolve rapidly.Their ubiquitousness has probably contributed to the idea that an online education should cost less.
This is where the scale issue comes back into play. Affordable online colleges and universities like SNHU, Arizona State University - Tempe (ASU), Western Governors University, and Georgia Institute of Technology (Main Campus) adapted the model created by for-profit colleges and made it work.
Still, the reality is the best online classes and the best online degree programs have less in common with MOOCs than with the traditional on-campus experience. Small class sizes, face-to-face interaction, synchronous online discussions, virtual office hours, similar graduation rates, and a lot of pre- and post-graduation support are typical of today's online degree program experience.
Some colleges and universities have found ways to make online courses cost less per student. Again, scale may be the most crucial factor—the larger a school's enrollment numbers and class sizes, the bigger the savings—though it's worth noting that it's not the only factor. If online courses are offered continuously throughout the year (which is possible with 100 percent asynchronous online classes), schools can quickly recoup the cost of each course.
How about the cost of teaching? An ASU Action Lab study of online learning at the university level called Making Digital Work found that colleges and universities frequently assign online classes to "less costly" adjunct or part-time faculty instead of tenured professors. This does, indeed, reduce the school's costs.
On the other hand, the best online degree programs can cost more to deliver. That's because it can be quite expensive to adapt hands-on, high-engagement courses and degree programs for online learners. It can also be costly to run them; online programs require a large, capable support staff to ensure everything runs smoothly and that troubleshooting, when necessary, is quick and effective.
The frustrating answer is 'sometimes.' Many schools make it difficult for prospective students to figure out how much individual classes and entire degree programs cost. Tuition rates are published in one place. Fees are published in another, and there may or may not be an explanation of what expenses those fees actually cover. Other schools combine a semester's tuition costs and fees into one big number, making it impossible to know at a glance how much you'll pay in fees if you enroll. When public universities charge in-state and out-of-state tuition rates, it gets even more confusing. Some schools treat all online students as non-residents. Others don't. Others still charge all online students the in-state rate.
Part of the problem is that many colleges and universities haven't updated their fee structures to account for the influx of distance learners. Consider that fees often fund shuttle buses, tutoring centers, campus maintenance, fitness facilities, health clinics, cultural events, and other extras that only benefit on-campus students. In some cases, online students are automatically exempt from these fees, though it's unusual for schools to publish that information online. Sometimes, distance learners have to pay these fees up front but receive a refund partway through the semester. And at some schools, online students may be able to request a waiver of some fees—particularly if they're taking just one or two classes.
Again, the answer is sometimes. One study conducted by BMO Capital Markets found that the average per credit hour, in-state cost for an online bachelor's program was higher than the per credit cost of analogous on-campus programs. ASU, for instance, charges full-time online students close to $1,000 more per semester for its bachelor's degree programs.
That's not unusual. While most colleges and universities charge the same tuition for online and on-campus classes, some charge more, and only about five percent of schools charge online students a lower cost, according to the latest Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) report.
Students may end up paying more for online classes because they have to pay technology fees that students in on-campus programs don't have to pay. According to the CHLOE report, those added fees pay for additional costs related to "online instruction and support services," "online course and program development," and "online program marketing."
Affordability, when it comes to online classes, often has nothing to do with tuition or fees. While traditional degree programs and online degree programs may come with the same price tag on paper, students who take classes online or who complete entire degree programs remotely can often save money in other ways. Consider that students who study on-campus pay for on-campus housing or commuting costs, dining plans or meals on campus, books and other physical course materials, and even mandatory health insurance and vaccinations.
Enrolling in a traditional degree program can end up costing tens of thousands of dollars more than taking online classes even if students have to pay the same per-credit tuition and fees. More importantly, students who take community college, bachelor's degree, and master's degree courses online may be able to continue working.
Absolutely, provided you enroll in a well-ranked, accredited college or university program that offers the same classes or degree program you're taking on campus as well as online. That's a surefire way to ensure that you get the biggest ROI. You'll earn the same certificate, bachelor's degree, or master's degree that you would have if you studied on campus, and you'll get the same level of post-graduation support. You'll complete the same coursework alongside peers who met the same admissions criteria on-campus students met. Chances are that your experiences after completing your program will be similar to the school's published student outcomes for that program.
The bottom line is that online classes at top colleges and universities (or even mid-range schools) will probably never be less expensive than on-campus classes, even as institutions expand their offerings for distance learners. What's important is that students get what they pay for. The days when online courses and degree programs were a pale imitation of what was offered on campus are over. Online classes at schools like Harvard University and Columbia University are as rigorous and can lead to a degree that's every bit as respected as you would expect.
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