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Online Learning and College Costs

As the price of attending college has risen and access to higher education has declined, policymakers are looking to online learning as a way to better serve student needs, increase access—and lower the costs of higher education. In California, the state’s community colleges have taken the lead in online learning, with total course enrollment reaching about one million. We have been able to study the impact of online education on hundreds of thousands of students at the state’s community colleges. What we found points to important issues in the discussion of higher education access and costs.

It is easy to understand why online education is being championed as a cost-saver. Online courses do not require classroom space, and the cost of developing courses can be amortized over time. Savings could come through economies of scale, including centralization of online student services. If faculty members do not have to invest as much time designing, facilitating, and seeking approval for individual online courses, the colleges’ overall labor costs could drop.

But at this point, these savings are theoretical. So far, there is no empirical evidence that online learning is less expensive than face-to-face learning. In fact, research shows that preparing an online course is usually more time consuming—and therefore expensive—than preparing a traditional class.

And there are other drawbacks to online education as it’s currently practiced. In California’s community colleges, online student success rates are lower than success rates in traditional courses. Success rates for African American and Hispanic students are significantly worse. If these gaps persist and online enrollment continues to increase, then community colleges will be less equitable. The result will be increased costs to students and the state—and a failure to realize the promise of online education.

Despite these drawbacks, certain online courses are highly successful. Our analysis of these courses led us to recommend that the colleges move away from the current model, which relies on an individual faculty member to design and deliver an online course, and adopt a more systematic approach to creating online courses. A team that supports faculty members—including administrators, media developers, and information technology experts—would be better able to maximize the potential of the online learning environment.

However, it is unclear how moving to a team model would affect costs. Incorporating specialists in course design would raise upfront costs. Regularly updating software and updating course material could quickly exceed any savings from economies of scale. Providing essential student support services, such as technical support, online tutoring, and counseling, might also significantly raise costs.

But online learning is an important tool for improving access to higher education in California, even if it does not cost less. Online classes are increasingly popular in the community colleges—which are the higher education institutions most likely to serve nontraditional students. Incorporating best practices into these courses would improve the colleges’ ability to serve the state’s diverse students.

The community college system’s Online Education Initiative is an important step in the effort to accommodate demand for online learning and improve student outcomes. If it is successful, it can serve as a model for other online learning programs in higher education.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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