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The Case for Lower-Cost, High-Quality Online Degrees

AUDIO | The Case for Lower-Cost, High-Quality Online Degrees
When there are less resources for students to access, the price of their education should reflect it.

The following interview is with Debbie Cavalier, vice president of online learning and continuing education at Berklee College of Music, and CEO of Berklee Online. Berklee Online recently launched an online degree program aimed at providing a high-quality educational experience to place-bound and non-traditional students at a lower cost. In this interview, Cavalier expands on the reasoning behind the lower pricing of online degrees and discusses competition and participation in the online education marketplace.

1. Why is it possible for online degrees to cost less than their face-to-face peers when the quality of education and outcomes are the same?

We’ve been teaching online for 12 years now and we’ve made a large investment in Berklee Online. We’re able to deliver high-quality education at a cost that’s lower than the on-campus experience. The on-campus students receive all kinds accouterments that aren’t available to the online students, so we’re not supporting practice rooms and ensemble rooms and recording studios and all of the facilities and the various counseling services.

The costs are completely tied to delivery of the education online. We pass the savings onto students and Berklee is really committed to addressing affordability issues in higher education. We’re able to price it very effectively; it’s 60 percent less than the on-campus tuition.

2. When we’re talking about the reduction in price as being tied to the lesser availability of different resources on campus, does that have an impact on the tuition itself or does that start to come into additional fees students are paying?

Most of that is in the tuition. There are some fees here and there, but there isn’t a fee for all the things I’ve discussed, like access to classrooms and practice rooms and counseling services. All of that is part of the tuition package, and those are things we’re not supporting in the online school.

Berklee is in the Back Bay of Boston and we’ve got beautiful facilities and all of that has a heavy cost associated with it and we don’t incur that with the online school.

3. How important is price when competing for enrollments in the online education marketplace?

I would turn that around to say it’s the quality education, it’s the Berklee brand [that’s important]. I do believe students would still be lining up for these online courses if it were priced higher. I don’t think we’re competing in the marketplace because of price, though I’m really happy we’re able to extend more affordable prices. We’ve asked our students time and again what’s attractive to them about this; it’s access to Berklee faculty, access to Berklee curriculum, interacting with likeminded musicians, it’s access that they want, and thankfully we’re also able to package that in an affordable manner.

4. Following on that, what are a few other differentiators institutions can highlight when competing online?

For Berklee, we’re very unique in that we’re an institution of contemporary music. We’re not a conservatory and we teach the music of the day. Most institutions of music are conservatories teaching music of the past. We’re more of a laboratory inventing the music of the future.

The online school reflects that we’re teaching very much the same courses, the same faculty, but we’re teaching a different audience in online schools. Our audience tends to be adult learners, people who are in the music industry and wanting to further their skills and enhance their career opportunities, so we often are creating courses aligned with their needs. We talk to our students all the time and ask, “If you could learn anything from Berklee what would it be?”

5. What are some of the most challenging aspects in competing in the online education marketplace?

We don’t really have competitors in the online music education space.

We’re the only regionally accredited non-profit institution teaching music online and our competition is really lack of awareness more than anything else. We’ve been doing things like expanding our presence — we recently partnered with Coursera and EdX and we have MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses]. Most schools are going into MOOCs as a way into online education. We did it as a way to provide free music education to students all over the world and also to expand our awareness. We’re nearly at our 1 millionth student mark. A lot of our Coursera and EdX students are coming over to take online courses with us and even applying to our degree programs.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about existing in the online marketplace and being able to offer online programming in such a way that you’re actually increasing access not just to place-bound students but to more wallet-bound students?

Berklee’s very forward thinking about distance learning; we actually had a correspondence course through the mail back in the ’50s and ’60s. Distance learning, whether it’s through the mail, and then as technology has evolved, the online school, has always been a very important thing for Berklee.

The sky’s the limit and the students in these classes — we’ve got opera stars who sing for the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway stars and people who already have Grammys but just want to further their education — it’s a very rich, vibrant mix. Our courses are very intimate. It’s a wonderful way to learn. There’s nothing better than coming to Berklee on campus, but for the thousands of people who don’t have that opportunity, it’s a wonderful way to be a music student.

This interview has been edited for length.

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