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Challenging the Low-Price Online Education Notion

AUDIO | Challenging the Low-Price Online Education Notion
The perspective that online education should be cheaper than its on-campus cousin ignores the fact that the operational costs for the institution are the same.
The following interview is with David Cillay, vice president of Global Campus at Washington State University. Cillay was recently quoted discussing the notion of differentiated tuition pricing; a topic gaining more and more steam in the postsecondary space. In this interview, Cillay expands on the topic of differentiated pricing models and shares his thoughts on why on-campus and online tuition are the same.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do the factors that go into determining pricing for online programs differ from those that determine on-campus tuition?

David Cillay (DC): For us, at Washington State University, we don’t offer a program online that is not offered on campus. We use the same curriculum, the same faculty, and deliver the same degree that you would find on campus.  The way we’ve approached this from the very beginning is that the online degree would be identical to the on campus degree.

Evo: From the institutional side, are online programs cheaper to create and deliver than on-campus programs?

DC: That’s a challenging question. For us, no. We use the same faculty online as we do on campus so our operational costs are pretty close to identical. That said, there are online programs offered by other universities that have taken the approach of delivering large class sizes, hiring lots of adjunct faculty and graders, put more responsibility on the student for their learning that have resulted in cost savings. There are some very interesting approaches out there. That said, I think we have to  be very aware of what we’re providing as institutions of higher education. We need to ask the question that if an approach does reduce the cost of an education, why and how and to what end. What is it that you’re doing differently and what effect will that have on your students?

For example, we could reduce the cost of an on-campus degree significantly if we only offered large lecture halls courses — 300 to 500 students sitting in a classroom from freshman to senior year.  That would significantly reduce our operational costs and ultimately the cost of an education. I don’t know if that’s the type of educational experience we’re looking to provide to our students.

Evo: What do you think of the perspective that online programs should be cheaper than on-campus programs because students don’t use the same campus infrastructure?

DC: In terms of the cost structure, classrooms are not part of the operational budget. The operational budget is the primary factor for us in determining the cost of the online program.  Since our degrees are identical to on campus, our operational costs are as well.

If we think about many of the students who are taking our online programs most of them are employed, are taking care of family members, are maintaining a permanent residence. By accessing an online degree they don’t have to give up their full-time job and they don’t have to relocate to Pullman, Washington to get that degree. If we think about it in those terms then yes, the cost for accessing that degree is less expensive. It’s actually less expensive for those students who are employed or taking care of family members to receive a WSU degree online.

Evo: Given the lack of difference in tuition for online programs, how successful are online programs when it comes to increasing access to higher education?

Our president Elson Floyd says it best: online education is the 21st century embodiment of the land-grant mission. We’re a land-grant institution so it’s our obligation to extend access to citizens of the State of Washington. Online education does that extremely well. I have countless stories of students who are so thankful for the opportunity to study at Washington State University online. They wouldn’t have had that opportunity without that online option. In my opinion, online education is very successful in increasing access to higher education.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the notion that the pricing for online should be different than for on-campus, and what product higher education institutions are actually selling?

DC: There’s a difference between job training and higher education. One isn’t better than the other or even independent of the other. But sometimes the job training aspect overshadows higher education when we are engaged in the conversation about online education and cost. Our students come to WSU for an experience that will prepare them for life. That’s the approach we’ve taken with our online program as well. We’ve worked very hard to replicate a campus experience online. We’re really not looking for students who want to click a button and get a degree, we’re looking for people who want to be students, who want to be connected to this campus, who want to be Cougs, who want to be engaged, who want to make a difference in the world. The fact that they can’t attend a physical campus doesn’t mean they’re not looking for that experience.

One of the pieces that gets missed in our current conversation about online higher education is the research that’s done at a university. There are so many innovative, creative, stimulating things happening outside the classroom in terms of research that students get to be exposed to and participate in and collaborate with. This should be part of the higher education experience. We have to find ways to continually build that into the online experience. Further, you get to interact with people that have differing points of view. Who challenge the way that you see the world. All of that is an extremely valuable aspect of university.

Finally, part of the value I see at Washington State University Global Campus is the fact that students connect with faculty, that there are mentors and faculty to guide them on this educational journey, and that students with varying skills and abilities will find the support they need to be successful. I believe that some of the approaches I have seen to reduce the cost of an education sacrifice this benefit.

This interview has been edited for length.

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