Published on WSJ.com
July 19, 2012
By Melissa Korn
Online education is touted as a convenient option for busy students, but e-learners may actually care more about cost than about schedule.
According to a new study by the education practice at The Parthenon Group, a consulting firm, tuition cost ranks higher among factors that prospective online students weigh than do convenience, quality of education or even the ability to find a job after graduation.
The survey included more than 1,500 prospective students with family income below $80,000 and was commissioned by Penn Foster, which operates online high school, college and vocational programs.
Tuition cost rose to the top spot in 2012 from the No. 5 criteria in school selection back in 2007. The main factor for students five years ago was education quality.
“It was a little surprising to see [cost] jump to number one,” says Chris Ross, a partner at Parthenon. “The student decision-making process is shifting.”
With price tags ballooning, jobs hard to come by, schools cutting back on grants and scholarships and families increasingly worried about saddling graduates with long-lasting debt, it’s no surprise that cost is top of mind.
And while the general public remains uncertain about online courses, as this Pew Research Center report from last summer shows, institutions of higher education are plowing head-first into e-courses. (On Tuesday, another 12 top universities announced they would pile onto the free education bandwagon.)
Still, as online education becomes more mainstream, schools are finding they need to differentiate themselves on something other than flexibility of schedule and convenience, Ross says. Accreditation no longer makes programs stand out from the crowd, nor does a school’s non-profit or for-profit status. A separate Parthenon study, not yet published, found that up to one-third of students at “private-sector” (for-profit) schools had considered attending a non-profit institution as well. “The decision set is widening, so other factors come into play,” Ross says.
(This infographic from the Sloan Consortium, a group of schools, companies and other organizations involved in online learning, gives an overview of online education today. Of note: nearly one-third of total enrollment came from online courses in fall 2010, and nearly one-third of chief academic officers believe it’s at least somewhat inferior to face-to-face teaching.)