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Business Officer Magazine
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Bridging the Distance Gaps

Distance learning continues to gain significant ground in higher education enrollments. But, many institutions face several challenges related to cost and access.

By Karla Hignite

As with traditional face-to-face instruction, issues of cost and access pose numerous challenges within the e-learning arena.

Janet Poley, president and CEO of American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC), a nonprofit partnership of state universities and land-grant colleges promoting high-quality, economical distance education programs and services, is a longtime advocate for those in remote and rural communities, and minority communities where broadband isn't a given. She has spent much of her career trying to help those who want an education, but don't have ready access to resources.

To see how institutions are increasing the outreach of distance education programs, read "Going the Distance" in the February 2011 issue of Business Officer.

Broadband holes. "We still too often talk about online learning options as though these opportunities are equally distributed," says Poley. "Most of us tend to forget that there are still many Americans who don't have 10 different ways to retrieve information on a daily basis." ADEC has been outspoken about the importance of rural broadband, and Poley credits member institutions for their efforts to advance broadband capacity across the nation, in part with the help of federal funding and through a variety of public-private partnerships. "We've made great progress, but we aren't there yet."

Ineffective comparisons. Affordability remains another access barrier for some online learners. Part of the problem has been the industry trying to determine how much it costs to produce online courses and programs, says Poley. Determining average cost is not a simple calculation, nor does it often produce a helpful comparison. "To say it costs X dollars on average for an online course can be misleading if you are mixing the averages of two-year and four-year, and independent and public institutions," says Poley. "The majority of those involved in course development would likely say there isn't a huge difference between the cost to develop face-to-face courses and fully online courses. The real difference is the cost timeline." In general, online courses require far greater development time upfront versus a more incremental approach typically taken for developing face-to-face instruction, explains Poley.

While course development costs represent part of the efficiency equation for institutions, tuition and fees charged to students pose other cost concerns.

Inexplicable fees. Technology fees, sometimes called "convenience" fees, are among the most common additional charges that institutions assess to online learners. "These are controversial at best and at least merit better explanation for students," says Poley. In some instances, fees may be legitimate. "Libraries have done a masterful job of making materials available digitally, but in most cases, weren't these expenditures going to occur anyway?" asks Poley. Another tricky question is whether these same fees should be charged to on-campus students who take one or more classes online. The important point is that institution leaders should be able to defend any special fees charged to distance learners, says Poley.

Inflated market pricing. Of greater concern to Bruce Chaloux is tuition pricing strategies based on what the market will bear, resulting in rates that can be significantly higher for online degree options versus traditional classroom instruction. This is more common among elite institutions, where the costs for content development and instruction are arguably greater, and where certain graduate-level programs in particular, such as an MBA, might include an international study component, says Chaloux, director of student access programs and services at the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). "But now we're seeing some institutions charge nearly these same rates for an otherwise standard MBA program, simply because others are charging high prices." Chaloux believes some states may soon begin to address this pricing policy gap for their public institutions. When they do, he hopes leaders focus on what students can pay. For instance, a $50,000 master's program for teachers seems incompatible with what many in that discipline could likely afford, says Chaloux.

While SREB does not attempt to influence the tuition levels set by institutions within the 16-state compact, the board does advocate for charging a single electronic rate for online learners regardless of residency. "I understand this can be problematic from a policy point of view for states that remain sensitive to maintaining lower in-state rates. And yet, state of residence seems rather inconsequential in an online environment," notes Chaloux.

KARLA HIGNITE, Universal City, Texas, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.