Will Online Learning Help Colleges Save Money?

While too many universities are still responding to a funding crunch from cuts in government education budgets by raising tuition and fees to makeup the shortfall, an increasing number are looking towards online education – and the attendant savings – to ease fiscal burdens both on themselves and on their students.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Randy Best write for Bloomberg that the latest round of tuition hikes means that attending college for a year will now cost 38% of the average annual income, up 15% from 2001. Yet at the same time, while enrollment in traditional college programs is on the decline for the first time in decades, enrollment in online courses is growing at a record pace. Education leaders are increasingly becoming aware that online learning provides a perfect medium to deliver knowledge at a time of increasing broadband penetration and the growing desire of students to have their studies customized to their special needs – all while costing less than an arm and a leg.

In addition, learning measures for online students have matched or exceeded those for on-campus students. Although graduate programs have seen the largest growth in online learning, significant increases in online undergraduate programs are expected over the next decade. Unfortunately, many universities remain averse to such change and hold to tradition and a classical notion of education.

A number of officials from several universities from around the state recently testified before legislators that shifting more courses online wouldn't actually provide the level of savings that many expect from the transition. Yet, as Jeb Bush & Randy Best point out, such assertions don't hold up even to a minimum level of scrutiny.

By offering their courses online, schools can save by eliminating expenses from facilities required to house students such as dorms, food courts and student lounges. In addition, schools can substantially scale down investments in maintaining things like gyms and stadiums.

— Building maintenance, personnel and service vehicles
— Utilities including phones, air conditioning and plumbing
— Landscaping and campus beautification projects
— Mail service, supplies and procurement services

A recent study out of the University of Texas shows that universities can gain operating savings of as much as 50% by offering courses online. It is unlikely that students, for whom affordability of higher education is an important concern, would fail to embrace an approach that removes from them the burden to fund things that are inessential to their academic success.

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