taking notes

A guest post from Sabrina Manville, Co-founder and COO of Edmit

This fall, students of all ages have transitioned to virtual online learning in some format as a result of the global COVID pandemic—some by choice, and some not. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking college reopening plans, 44% of colleges are fully or primarily online whereas only 27% are operating fully or primarily in-person (as of the time of writing). The remaining colleges are offering a mix of hybrid or blended options.

It’s natural to wonder what impact this will have on the cost of college. For many families, the fact that the college experience has changed significantly at nearly three-quarters of institutions implies that the prices should change also.

Online education offers many benefits to students—it is convenient, and you can complete courses on your own time and at your own (socially-distanced) place. But is it also cheaper? And should it be?

Here is what you should consider when comparing the costs of online and in-person college.

First, tuition is only one part of the cost of college.

Always remember that going to college costs more than tuition. You’re studying, but you also have to live somewhere, eat, buy books and supplies, and take care of personal expenses such as clothing and travel. And all of those expenses exist whether you are online or offline.

Colleges include tuition plus all of these costs in their “cost of attendance,” which is a full annual budget for a full-time college student. For high school students transitioning to college, online study may mean living at home rent-free, or it could mean renting an apartment or house at a steep price.

Second, the average cost of online tuition is lower, but it will depend on the college.

Now let’s look at just tuition and fees. In the fall of 2020, the majority of colleges are doing some kind of online instruction, even those that never intended to.

Some universities have specialized in online education and only offer courses online. This means they can support large class sizes and don’t have big campuses, dorms, or other facilities to support. Many of these universities have also focused on affordability, meaning their prices are lower than you’d typically see from traditional higher education.

For example, Western Governors University has among the lowest prices among online-only providers. They charge by 6-month term, and the average bachelor’s degree there costs $16,500 (total!).

When a university has both a campus and online programs, the cost of tuition can differ between those two modes of study, even if you’re taking courses from the same university.

Take Southern New Hampshire University, a private university which has one of the largest online student populations in the country, but also has a campus. The online programs there cost $320 per credit hour. In person, campus tuition is priced annually at $30,756. It’s therefore at least three times more expensive to study at SNHU in-person (30 credits per year is a full courseload, which would come to $1,025 per credit).

At the University of Florida, another very large online player, tuition and fees come to $3,876 for online in-state students. On-campus, that number is $6,380.

In many cases, though, you will not get any discount for being online. A recent analysis from U.S. News & World Report found (from a set of 170 public colleges), the average tuition price for in-state students studying online was $316 per credit hour. For those students studying on campus, the average price was $311 per credit. In other words, the cost was very similar at public colleges.

Notably, for the 168 private colleges they looked at, the online price per credit was $488, compared to the average on-campus price of $1,240 per credit.

Why is online education sometimes MORE expensive than in-person education?

Many people may feel that online education should be cheaper. Students have demanded partial refunds for not just the room and board they didn’t use last spring, but for tuition as well, even if they continued to study and earn credit for those courses online. There are several ongoing class-action lawsuits related to this as well (one of the most prominent examples is at the University of California).

Many are shocked to learn that in some cases online prices can be higher than in-person! Here is why:

From the college or university’s perspective, the cost of providing an education online is not necessarily reduced. Not only do you still have to pay professors, instructors, and graduate students, but you have to implement and manage new (expensive) software, provide video hardware and other equipment, and train and support both the faculty and students to use those things. Technical support, a relatively minor expense for on-campus courses, can be a big need for online study.

Think of, for example, the small liberal arts college which offers intimate in-person instruction; that college will need to invest across many departments to change their systems and processes.

And if you have the same number of students as you had on campus, you can’t get economies of scale, which could otherwise reduce the cost for each student.

Colleges might also argue that the value you get is the same. Ultimately, individual classes are wonderful venues for learning specific skills and information, but some might say that what colleges are “selling” is the cumulative value of those learning experiences: a degree. So, if that’s true, who cares if a few semesters out of the total experience are taught differently?

Students, however, may disagree. While getting the degree (and the career that potentially results from that degree) is certainly one major reason people go to college, many students also care deeply about the social learning experience (which exists online, but not in the same way it exists in a classroom) and about interpersonal relationships and friendships (again, harder to form online). For those students, the value they are getting is reduced, and, therefore they argue, the price too should be reduced.

How to tell if your online tuition will be more expensive

While we hope the world shifts back to something more “normal” in the coming year, there is much uncertainty, both from the perspective of protecting public health and protecting a college’s financial health! Some of the shifts to online instruction may be more permanent.

While there are some rules of thumb, every college is forming its own pricing strategy according to its student population, funding, and other business considerations. If you’re researching colleges now, you’ll need to do your own research to determine what your online education costs might be.

If the college currently offers online undergraduate programs, check on the pricing and compare apples to apples. Make sure to note if the college charges by the credit hour or by the semester, as you won’t be able to pay different amounts for different course formats if it’s one-price-fits-all.

Check also to see if the college made any statements about pricing for the fall 2020 term. If the college has shifted online, what have they done about tuition adjustments or refunds? The responses have varied widely. And you can always ask. Colleges, frankly, may not know the answer yet, but, as the “customer,” you certainly have the right to know what you’ll be paying, and for what, before you make your choice.

Get Expert College Admissions Help

Written by Sabrina Manville
Sabrina Manville is co-founder of Edmit, which helps families make smarter financial decisions about college. She was previously an AVP at Southern New Hampshire University, where she led growth and marketing for an internal startup, College for America, connecting higher education outcomes with employment skills. Sabrina has worked with leading higher education institutions throughout her career to better serve students and their missions. Her prior experience includes work with venture-backed ed-tech companies, Pearson, and Ithaka. Sabrina has an MBA from Stanford and a BA in Religious Studies from Yale.