Online Higher Ed a Cost Savings for Students, Universities? Think Again

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One of the most widely touted claims in the conversation surrounding online higher education is that it will save students, universities and taxpayers big money.

But what the chatter lacks is the real bottom line -- that the true costs can often amount to more, not less, costs for all involved.

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education's working paper, "The Promises of Online Higher Education: Reducing Costs," takes a hard look at the facts surrounding the real costs of such courses. For policy makers, educators and students alike, examination of the findings is critical before rushing into a trend that will cost higher education, and those seeking it, dearly.

For students, many online courses taken for credit can be more expensive than traditional instruction at most colleges and universities.

For example, while four years of full-time enrollment in a face-to-face Business Administration program in the California State University system will cost $21,888 in 2013-14, the same degree would cost $47,700 when taken at the Fullerton campus through CalState Online, the system-wide online venture of the CSU system, the research found. Those amounts increase markedly at for-profit universities.

Even massive open online courses (MOOCs), which initially were free, are now beginning to have costs for students when associated with degrees or "certificates of value" that carry real value in the marketplace. Little wonder that, according to a Gallup survey, only 8 percent of campus president nationwide agreed strongly that MOOCs will be a solution to rising education costs for students.

Online higher education also falls short of being a panacea for reducing costs for universities. In fact, it's a shell game of shifting costs that in many cases could result in higher costs for colleges and universities.

Hidden costs wind up erasing imagined savings -- and in some cases increasing costs -- in several areas, including additional hardware and software, registration systems, enrollment and student support services, production and retooling costs and additional personnel to design, develop and support such courses.

Phil Hill, an e-learning expert who has advised universities on developing online programs, cautioned, "Quality online education costs real money -- registration systems, instructional design, course instructors, academic oversight and quality assurance, LMS and collaborating systems, student services, marketing and enrollment support. Someone has to pay."

Instead of reduced costs and lowered prices, we actually can expect even more pressures on colleges to increase tuition to cover the ever-expanding array of costs associated with the rush to go online.

Before running head-first into the new frontier of online higher education, more comprehensive analysis of the real costs associated with it is crucial. Plowing ahead based on unsubstantiated promises and unexamined assumptions would be a gamble that neither students, nor colleges and universities, can afford.

Click here to get a PDF of the working paper "The Promises of Online Higher Education: Reducing Costs."

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