EDITORIAL: Online classes should be more affordable

Though online courses can offer students many conveniences not available to those enrolled in physical classes, they are not always the most financially convenient option.

Students seek online courses for a variety of reasons, whether it’s because they prefer to work from home or because they have a job or family commitment. Others may simply want to avoid a commute or may opt for them because of course availability.

As stated in a report from the Learning House and American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), nearly half of public universities offer five or more completely online programs. 

USF offered over 1,600 sections of online courses last year, and 63 percent of students are enrolled in at least one online course each year, according to USF Innovative Education. 

While online courses have appeal as an alternative to those offered on campus, students are sometimes forced to pay a larger cost than they would for on-campus classes.

While Georgia Tech offers an online graduate program that costs over 80 percent less than the on-campus program, as it did with its online computer science program that launched this spring according to an Inside Higher Ed column, this isn’t the norm. 

As mentioned in the column, 36 percent of large public universities in the country charge students a premium for online courses, according to the AASCU and Learning House report. Of the universities offering five or more online classes, 64 percent charge students an online technology fee.

Additionally, most large public universities that offer online courses charge virtual students the same residential rate for tuition as students in on-campus courses, according to the same report. Only 2 percent offer online tuition at less than that rate.

At USF, all undergraduate Tampa students pay the same tuition per credit hour rate of $211.19. However, when the $50 distance learning fee — which, according to Innovative Education, covers expenses such as software licenses, support services and instructional materials — is added per credit hour, online students could pay as much as $150 more for each online class.

While tuition may be the same, this fee compromises the affordability of seeking online education.

In the past year, USF Tampa has collected about $6.5 million from this fee, and reinvested it into expenses for distance learning and activities such as transitioning on-campus courses to online courses, according to Innovative Education.

All USF students, with the exception of graduate students in a fully-online program living outside of Tampa, are required to pay mandatory flat fees, one of which is the Tampa Student Union Enhancement Flat Fee, which covers Marshall Student Center (MSC) maintenance. 

Since USF’s fully-online programs are only at the graduate level, this fee is fair since these students may never set foot in the MSC if all of their classes
are online. 

Online students don’t use all of the institution’s amenities and don’t wear down the school’s facilities, if they take all of their courses online. But even if a student is only enrolled in one online class, his costs for that class should be adjusted to match only the resources he’s expected to use.

As the Inside Higher Ed article addresses, a solution to the problem of online tuition could be e-tuition, which sets the cost of tuition for online classes reasonably lower than the on-campus cost.

While many universities don’t charge online students at a higher price than on-campus students, the example set by Georgia Tech and other schools who charge tuition at significantly lower rates than the on-campus rate could help make the path to online education more affordable and that much more accessible.