by Isabel Thottam
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been much discussion about the future of higher education. With more schools opting for hosting classes online to adhere to social distancing and keep both students and faculty safe, many students and parents are demanding tuition refunds. As institutions move classes online and many are only offering online courses for the upcoming fall sessions, students and their parents are questioning the cost of tuition based on the value of online learning compared to in-person instruction.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, some colleges and universities were already fully online or adding more online courses and charging the same tuition. In fact, in some cases, the cost has already been greater for online learning.
Arizona State University charges online students about $6,219 per semester for an online program, compared to the $5,396 charged to students attending the same program at the university’s Tempe campus. Moreover, at The University of Central Florida, students who live in state are charged an $18 “distance-learning fee” per credit to cover the costs associated with making their courses available online.
It is a valid concern from students and parents about tuition, especially for those who are not used to, or have never taken online courses. But, as university administrators know, there are many benefits to online courses. Since institutions have seen the demand increase for more online learning over the past years, it is just as valuable.
As leaders in higher education, it’s important to show why online only education is still worth the cost. This article will address and discuss:
- What costs are associated with providing online education
- Why online education is still worth the tuition
Section 1: What costs are associated with providing online education
Although housing fees (such as room and board or gym costs) and other on-campus costs (such as lab and equipment fees) shouldn’t be charged, there is still a high cost associated with providing online courses. It still takes a lot of resources and money to fund online education. It seems there may be a misconception that online learning is less expensive to run for an institution. That’s likely why students believe they should not pay an equivalent or higher tuition for online classes.
But, the reality is: it is expensive to run online courses. Not to mention, to make an entire campus operate online on rather short notice. Here are some examples of the costs that are associated with providing online learning.
When a college offers courses online, there are many Information Technology (IT) resources that are required to operate the online platform and keep it running smoothly. As more students start using online classes, not only does the online traffic rise, so does the amount of time students spend on a given portion of the site. On the technical end, more equipment and resources are necessary to maintain an active site with so many more users navigating it than normal.
Some examples of the technology and equipment institutions will need to pay for are: IT customer support staff to field student questions or solve technical issues, IT specialists to keep the website running and resolve any major outages or breaks, and additional servers or other related equipment.
There are many overlooked costs to the technical side of an online campus, butservers alone can cost an institution millions of dollars. As website traffic increases with more students being online, universities will need to invest in more servers.
Sal Khan, CEO and Founder of Khan Academy, told EdSurge that, prior to COVID-19, their online education courses received about 18 million new users per month. But, during the onset of the pandemic, that grew two-and-a-half to three times their normal users. Usually, Khan spends about 7 million dollars on servers alone–but with the increased usage on their website, he estimates the cost rising to 20 million.
Course and program development
Another major cost from the technical side of online education is the implementation and design of courses and programs. If every course needs to move online, professors now need to redesign their class to be online. In addition to their time and work to re-design how all of their classes will operate, there is a lot of technical work that goes into setting each course up to be digital. The student registration system for courses alone will need to be updated to offer all the courses online and assign students access to each different course they are approved for.
It’s not an easy system, so, again, there might be misconceptions that all an institution needs to do is upload course syllabus and documents to the system and be ready to go. Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that and it takes a lot of time (and costs a lot of money) to build and add on so many new materials, software, documents, data, etc., all which require installation or implementation of different tools or interactive requirements. These systems, the web design and program set ups all will need to be built by someone, which can cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to do.
Moreover, as mentioned briefly above, the other large cost to online courses is the course instructor. They, of course, will still need to teach all of their courses. For those who already have an online class or have taught one previously, it will be easier to develop their course or redesign it to adapt online. For others, it will not be as easy and many professors will need to receive training and instruction both on how to use the online systems and how to restructure their teaching methods.
Not to mention, they will need to make sure they understand how to troubleshoot issues and be available for students who have problems using or navigating the online course. Ultimately, instructors will end up interacting just as much with their students online as they would in-person, if not more, depending on how well the students adapt to the online system and how often students chat, write messages and ask questions through the system. Students will likely feel more able to ask more questions since online learning gives more access and opportunity to engage with the instructor.
This all boils down to a lot more time and work on faculty and staff, all who will need to be paid accordingly. Therefore, institutions will need to increase the pay for instructors and staff involved in courses being added online. That cost is going to be enormous, thus adding to the high cost of operating online learning.
Section 2: Why online education is still worth the tuition
It is likely that students who do not regularly attend online classes are upset about the idea of classes shifting to online because they feel that online education is not as valuable or effective. But, a recent study conducted by Best Colleges that surveyed 1,500 students from 398 schools saw that 94% of students were satisfied with their online learning experience and 95% would recommend online education to others.
Here are a few examples of why online education is still worth the tuition:
- Instructors can be more interactive with students because online courses are designed to have great communication tools, such as comment threads, chat features, discussion boards, and more.
- Students can interact with their peers better because of these communication features that they will have access to for each individual course. That gives students the opportunity to easily discuss topics covered in class or ask questions to both their peers and instructor. It also helps lead to more real-time, quick feedback or responses, and more class participation.
- Online learning allows faculty to enhance the learning experience for their courses because they can become more interactive. Whether the instructor utilizes presentations, group discussions, video, etc., it could actually be much easier for an individual student to listen and engage from the comfort of their own screen as opposed to sitting among a crowded classroom.
- Online course systems can store and offer a wealth of information because the instructor can start discussions with the class on forums, or link to outside resources for students to easily access. This then gives students the opportunity to share other resources they find online, such as relevant videos, articles, etc., that can all be held in one place for either the student or instructor to readily access.
- Online learning is much more flexible than in person classes because students can study at their own pace, on their own schedule. Right now, this can be especially important since many students are living on their own, or with family and friends, and possibly in different time zones. The ability to have a more flexible learning schedule could be extremely beneficial for many students overall, but especially right now during a pandemic. With online classes, there is no time restriction for the class since students can access the information online when they need to, which is convenient for those students who work jobs or have family to take care of.
- The information can be easier to digest when learning online because most instructors pre-record their lessons and tend to condense information into short modules. Online courses are often very straightforward and contain condensed lessons with the purpose of sparking more discussions and engagement amount students in online forums. This can also lead to higher engagement among students.
These are just a few examples of why online education is still worth the cost, and there are many more to be pointed out both for students and faculty. It might be useful for faculty and staff to work together to outline what value can be found in taking education online as the pandemic continues.
Despite the initial negative backlash to online education tuition costs, many students and their parents are more understanding about the realities of the future of education during this difficult time. Ultimately, the goal is to keep students, staff and faculty all safe and healthy, and that very well may be the most important factor to consider for the value of online, socially distant courses. Online learning does offer a safe and flexible way for students to continue their education while staying healthy; so that value should help more people understand that online education is worth the cost.
About the author
Isabel Thottam is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. A graduate from Emerson College, Isabel has self-published two books, “The Labradoodle Who Lost His Doodle,” and “Joy Comes In The Morning.” She writes on the topics of career, technology, sustainable food, mental health and has been published in Fast Company, Glassdoor, Monster.com, Fortune, Edible Seattle, Paste Magazine, and more. In addition to writing, Isabel works for a small, family orchard in Washington State selling fruit!
Newton, Berek. “Why College Tuition Is Actually Higher For Online Programs” 25 June 2018. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/dereknewton/2018/06/25/why-college-tuition-is-actually-higher-for-online-programs/#b214bdcf11af
Singer, Frederick. “Is Online College Worth the Cost? 5 Ways Students and Parents Can Evaluate Remote Courses” 18 May 2020. Money.com. https://money.com/online-college-courses-worth-it/
Venable, A., Melissa. “Online Education Trends Report.” 2020. Best Colleges. https://www.bestcolleges.com/research/annual-trends-in-online-education/
Wan, Tony. “Traffic Is Booming for Online Education Providers. But So Are Costs.” 7 April 2020. Ed Surge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-04-07-traffic-is-booming-for-online-education-providers-but-so-are-costs