After welcoming undergraduates back to campus, Notre Dame, Michigan State, and the University of North Carolina (among others), experienced outbreaks of COVID-19. The result—they switched back to remote learning. With 26,000 cases of coronavirus linked to college campuses, more will soon follow. While some of those schools will offer discounts for online courses,many others won’t. Is this fair?Students don’t think so. In a recent survey, 93 percent of undergraduates said online tuition should be reduced. This result isn’t a surprise. Most of us equate “online” with “less expensive.” But while other industries have been able to cut prices taking advantage of technology and the Internet—colleges and universities (with the exception of massive online courses or MOOCs) typically charge the same for online and onsite courses. Why?Faculty costs. If you are trying to maintain the same level of quality, the faculty that teach your onsite courses also need to teach online. That’s why many schools pay the same amount for teaching the same class online or onsite. In fact, some schools, including my employer Johns Hopkins University, pay faculty a one-time fee to develop new online courses. That is not the case for onsite classes.
Classrooms. Both online and onsite courses have classrooms. Onsite classrooms require a physical space. Schools typically own the buildings where classrooms are located but there is still a cost (maintenance, insurance, utilities, etc.). Unfortunately, it’s hard to estimate what the cost of a classroom is worth, especially since some schools are located in pricier real estate markets than others. For example, George Washington University in the District of Columbia charges $110 for a classroom of 20 students. Assuming the class meets 15 times a semester the total cost works out to $1650. A similar size classroom at the University of Georgia is $50 or $750 per semester.
Online courses utilize learning management systems (LMS) to recreate the physical classroom. When a student goes into an online course, they will find discussion boards moderated by faculty, audio and video lectures, powerpoint presentations, direct access to readings, and more.
One of the largest LMS platforms is Blackboard. The price charged by Blackboard depends on a number of factors: the size of the college or university; the number of students taking online classes; and which options are chosen. One estimate put the cost of a Blackboard-hosted course of twenty students at about $12,000. That price drops considerably the more online courses your school offers. Plus, there are cheaper options also available, including open source services like Moodle or Edmodo.
Administrative Costs. Both online and onsite classes have some common administrative costs—Library services, admissions, registration, and career placement. Other administrative costs are more associated with onsite students, such as clubs, social events, housing, health care, etc. But onsite students usually pay additional fees beyond tuition for these services.
Given that online and onsite courses cost about the same to develop, teach, and administer, should students get a discount from schools that are only offering online classes this fall? From that perspective the answer is no. But based on what it takes to create and teach an undergraduate class, students are paying too high a price, no matter what teaching modality is utilized.
Many American colleges and universities are tuition dependent. They don’t have large endowments or enough research grant funding to cover their bills without over-charging for course tuition. For a number of schools, the revenue from online instruction has been a life saver. Some, like Purdue University, have taken the additional dollars earned from online courses to freeze tuition costs for undergraduates. Others unfortunately, have used the money to put off tough decisions that could hold down costs and make college more affordable and accessible—such as cutting administrative bloat, reducing travel and expensive conference budgets, and placing a moratorium on new construction.
More and more prospective students and their families are factoring in cost when choosing which college to attend. Because of COVID-19, this practice will likely increase. Schools should use the revenue from online education to hold down the cost of tuition for all courses—online and onsite.