Why Online Education May Drive Down the Cost of Your Degree

Online learning initiatives may make higher education cheaper, but not everyone is excited about why.

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Some online programs may save on costs by drastically increasing their student-faculty ratios, experts say.

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As the price of higher education continues to skyrocket, some universities believe they have found the key to keeping tuition costs down – online education.

Recently, for example, Georgia Institute of Technology announced it would be offering an online master's degree in computer science for $6,600 – about $35,000 less than its on-ground program. The University of the People, an accredited, online-only school, is now offering degrees with no tuition. And massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have been hailed as free educational resources that people could eventually use to complete a degree.

[Learn why online education isn't always cheap.]

Although these developments in online education may influence the overall price of college eventually, students might not see dramatic changes soon, experts say. And as people test out different models, some argue that the cost of providing a quality education makes it difficult to offer online learning at discounted rates. 

In the minds of people like Ben Nelson, it's obvious that online education should be easier on the pocketbook than attending an on-campus program. At his program, called the Minerva Schools at KGI, students take all of their courses online while living together in the world's largest cities. Tuition isn't cheap, but at $10,000 it is less than out-of-state tuition at many state universities, he says.

Students pay less because the school doesn't have to maintain facilities like libraries or cafeterias, subsidize sports teams or pay for amenities like climbing walls, Nelson says. The school also trimmed its budget by eliminating tenure and mandating that faculty receive research funding through outside sources rather than through tuition. 

[Gauge the cost of an online degree at a U.S. college.]

Another way online programs can save on costs and therefore lower tuition is by admitting more students – sometimes hundreds more – to class while keeping the number of instructors to a minimum or outsourcing grading to computers. That model is being embraced by Georgia Tech, which is offering its own MOOCs to students in its online master's program in computer science

But Karen Swan, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Illinois—Springfield whose research focuses online education, ​says that model has its drawbacks. MOOCs can be expensive to produce, don't have a great track record when it comes to completion rates and can ​have weak approaches to teaching, known as pedagogy, she says.

"I don't think the pedagogy ​that is embedded in MOOCs is all that good and I definitely don’t think it's going to help the people who most of us want it to help – first time in college, underprepared people who need a ​college degree," she says. 

[Explore the 10 most expensive public online bachelor's programs.]

Dave R. Cillay, vice president of Washington State University's ​Global Campus, ​says his online students pay the same tuition as their on-campus counterparts because they enjoy​ the same student services and interacting with the same professors. Online students aren't paying for facilities they aren't using because like at many other public universities, money for buildings comes from government funding, not tuition, he says.

"One of the problems is there is no universal definition of higher education," he says. "You have to ask, 'What am I buying? Am I buying an adjunct that teaches a thousand students or am I buying a professor who is involved in cutting-edge​ research?' One is going to be more expensive than the other." 

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.


Corrected on June 5, 2014: A previous version of this article misidentified Minerva Schools at KGI.