Fact or Fallacy: Does Distance Education Really Cost Less?

The issues of college access and affordability have been salient topics among students, administrators, and state and federal legislators for quite some time – and for good reason. Given rising tuition and fees, a growing number of students across the U.S. cannot afford to attend college in the traditional manner, and are increasingly drawn to the greater affordability and flexibility of online education. However, a recent Inside Higher Ed article cites a study conducted by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) stating that online education actually costs more, not less.

As institutions offer courses to students studying online absent the costs of classroom buildings, dormitories, health centers, parking lots, ball fields, intramural and extramural activities, and related facilities maintenance, how is it that the cost for an online education is considered or evaluated to be higher than the cost of traditional campus programs? In short, why should online students without these on-campus costs end up paying more? Well, the important distinction lies in the type of institution, an important consideration required in order to gain a better understanding of all the variables.

The “Bolt On” Approach

The WCET study found that most colleges charge students either the same or more to study online, and when fees are included, the price increases even more for online students. This is due to higher production costs for online components, such as faculty development, instructional design, and student assessment, which effectively translates to courses that are more expensive to produce. WCET Analyst Terri Taylor Straut notes there is a lack of knowledge about creating the courses; instead of building online courses from scratch, colleges use a “bolt on” approach which takes face-to-face courses and adds the tools needed to offer the course online, thereby driving up the cost.

Another important factor infrequently reported in studies about the cost of online courses, and yet discussed by directors of online programs at traditional campuses, is their business model. This approach requires that the online course tuition be paid directly to the traditional department offering the program and an additional fee added to pay for the overhead and development costs for the online department managing the online program delivery. Hence, redundant costs for offering the same course online and on-ground. This division of labor and fees calls for additional exploration to determine the true total cost of online education by these institutions.

In exclusively online and/or traditional institutions where a focused business unit operates as a profit/loss center, courses and degrees are indeed built from scratch and specifically designed to be offered online, rather than simply “bolted on” to existing programs. This approach allows online programs to be offered at a significantly lower or comparable rate to on-ground courses, keeping costs down while still offering the convenience and quality online students expect. “In fact, some of them [educational experts] contend that when distance courses are designed from scratch, without trying to emulate the classroom model, they can be both more effective and cheaper,” Straut notes. Clearly, more comprehensive research is needed on this question, with additional factors included in the overall assessment of the affordability of online education and costs compared to traditional student learning costs.

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