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Online Programming Has Potential to Push Higher Ed Costs Down

The EvoLLLution | Online Programming Has Potential to Push Higher Ed Costs Down
By minimizing capital costs, online higher education providers can offer students a high-quality higher education experience for a minimal cost, hopefully creating a level of competitiveness in the post-secondary space that leads to more widespread cost variance.
In 2013, President Barack Obama derided the high cost of higher education today, a theme reflected by the comments of countless students, families, observers and even post-secondary administrators. Public desire for more affordable and accessible higher education options has never been higher. While many institutions are grappling with the challenges of maintaining their operations with less public funding, some institutions have invented completely new models to adapt to the times and, for many of these institutions, online offerings are at the center of their approaches. In this interview, Shai Reshef shares his thoughts on the profound impact online programming can have on the cost challenges plaguing higher education.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Generally speaking, what are the most significant differences between the price-determinant factors for online programs and face-to-face programs?

Shai Reshaf (SR): Face-to-face universities have expenses that virtual universities do not, so virtual universities do not pass these expenses onto their students.

As an online university, we don’t worry about capacity, there is no restriction by physical buildings, there are no limits on seats and nobody needs to stand at the back of the lecture hall. In our case we also use open educational resources; content that professors produce and put on the Internet so everyone can have access. This saves a lot of money—we don’t need to send our students to buy textbooks.

We also use peer-to-peer learning, which allows students from all over the world to interact with each other. This saves time for the professors when it comes to laboring over class assignments. While we are taking it to the extreme being tuition free and built on volunteers, the essence of online is by definition cheaper than face-to-face education.

Evo: What are some of the main expenses for the college?

SR: While we are tuition free with a very lean budget, we have expenses. We have a very unique organization and structure where we rely heavily on volunteers but those volunteers are being backed by paid personnel. For example, our deans are volunteers but our associate deans are on payroll. We make sure that we use the time of the volunteers very cautiously and we rely on our paid staff to manage the administration—this costs us money, as does the management technology we use.

Evo: How has the University of the People managed to create and offer high-quality programs while operating on a tuition-free pricing model?

SR: Part of it is because we don’t have the expenses of traditional universities. We don’t need to spend a tremendous amount of money on real estate. We give the students everything they need in order to succeed and have a quality education.

At the same time, we don’t have extras—we don’t have a football team or things that other universities have. Additionally, we are based on volunteers. In our case, over 3,000 professors and other professionals jumped on board to teach and administer programs saying, “We believe in the mission, we believe that the price of higher education doesn’t make sense anymore.” We also use peer-to-peer learning, which saves a lot of time from the instructors.

Finally, we use open-source technology—technology that is being produced by and with thousands of other learning providers. All of our materials are open educational resources. We use everything for free on the Internet to enable people to create this university.

Within the structure that we built, we make sure the quality is there. We ensure that our advisory committee approves every course we offer. After they approve the course and the learning outcomes, the dean assigns the course to the right volunteer who is a professional in the topic in question. They write the course and the course is then peer-reviewed. We check the quality very carefully and, because everything is online, we’re able to monitor how students perform very easily.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of creating such low-cost access to higher education and whether online is really taking over for face-to-face?

SR: UNESCO stated that, in 2025, 98 million students will have been deprived from higher education simply because there would not be enough seats for them. So many others—and North America is a perfect example—simply can’t afford the higher education that is on offer.

Higher education can use online in order to make it accessible and affordable. Technology enables us to do that. This is where the world is headed. It will be affordable, accessible and the quality will be there. It’s good for everyone.

Some people will always want to go to brick-and-mortar universities. Online learning will live beside these traditional institutions. There is room for everyone to serve students, but the growth of online will mean that the price structure of higher education will change. Not all universities are going to charge a tremendous amount of money. There will be cheaper alternatives to enable those with no money or hardly any money to be able to study as well. There will be a big spectrum of prices as the marketplace fills with cheaper and more expensive universities, and this will lead to different problems and different price tags.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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