Published on USNews.com
August 28, 2013
As a working mother of two, 37-year-old Heather Blair felt the only way she could get a bachelor's degree was to find an online program that accommodated her busy schedule.
Cost-wise, she thought she knew how it would compare with the price of an on-campus degree.
"I thought it would be less," says Blair, who started a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene with Vermont Technical College in 2009. "In the end, I don't think it was."
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Many believe that online education is easier on the bank account than taking classes on campus. But in many cases, an online degree is actually more expensive than a degree from a brick-and-mortar institution, according to data from U.S. News and other sources.
When it comes to paying in-state tuition at a public school, for example, a U.S. News analysis of about 300 ranked programs shows that it's more expensive on a per-credit basis to take an online undergraduate course than a comparable on-campus course.
The average per credit, in-state cost for an online bachelor's program is $277, compared with $243 per credit at brick-and-mortar schools.
Online undergraduate education is less per credit, however, than traditional education at private schools and for out-of-state students at public institutions.
A 2013 survey conducted by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Learning House also found similar results.
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The survey, which will be published this October and involved 400 public universities, concluded that more than 60 percent charged the same tuition for face-to-face courses as they charged for online courses. Thirty-six percent of the schools charged more for online tuition.
For schools that don't already have an online program up and running, creating one is a significant investment, says Susan Aldridge, a senior fellow at the association.
"The courses cost more to develop, take more time to develop and take more time for the faculty to teach," says Aldridge. "In order for students to succeed in these online courses, 24/7 technical support, reference librarians, writing labs, automated degree plans and tutoring need to be available."
In addition, schools often have to train their faculty to teach effectively on online platforms – an expensive, ongoing endeavor, says Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois—Springfield.
"Most faculty members come prepared to teach face-to-face," Schroeder says. "They need substantial training and support in order to teach effectively. It's not a one-time training."
Not everyone, however, agrees that online education must or should be more expensive.
John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, a New-York based institution that offers online education, believes that online education is cheaper for colleges to provide because they don't have to invest in creating or maintaining facilities. Those savings, he said, should outweigh the cost of any initial investment in technology.
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"If my online students aren't going to take advantage of the cafeteria, going to the student union, participating in the extracurricular activities and we don't have the building costs, why isn't it cheaper?" he says.
One reason, according to online education experts, may be faculty costs beyond training.
It's hard to make an online program more inexpensive for students when schools are using the same faculty for their online programs that they are using in their brick-and-mortar programs, Schroeder says.
Full-time faculty members are expensive, he says, which is why some online programs hire instructors who don't receive benefits and who may not have advanced degrees.
Penn Foster is one example of an online school that charges students less than the average cost of credits among U.S. News-ranked schools, a move made possible in part by trimming faculty costs. CEO Frank Britt says the for-profit school, which has national and programmatic but not regional accreditation for its postsecondary degrees, has a different instructor-student ratio.
This, according to Britt, allows the school to "deliver a high-touch experience" and spend only 7 percent of its budget on faculty costs, as opposed to around 70 to 80 percent, as most colleges do. It also allows the school to charge students less – Penn Foster charges $79 per credit, Britt says.
The school offers self-guided learning and students are encouraged to reach out to faculty members when they haven't had success getting help from an active online community of their own peers interested in similar subjects.
Instructors at Penn Foster aren't tenure-track faculty members, but rather experts in their field. And they support 10 times as many students as faculty do at traditional universities, says Britt.
Debating the different kinds of online education models brings up issues of quality, experts say.
"Some of the cost savings models have less interaction and engagement with the faculty members," says Schroeder of the University of Illinois—Springfield. "As we look at MOOCs, for example, they certainly save students money but there isn't quite the same direct faculty engagement. Students need to decide what works for them and what fits their budget."
In the meantime, Blair, who graduated from Vermont Technical College in 2011, says she's fine with paying a little extra for her online education.
"For the instructors, teaching an online course is a lot more labor intensive," she says. "They are on the computer answering your questions and doing follow-up. I think the cost is worth it."