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Slashing Tuition to Expand Access to Online Education

—With Jon Sizemore | Assistant Vice Chancellor for Distance Education, University System of Georgia—

AUDIO | Slashing Tuition to Expand Access to Online Education
In order to ensure eCore doesn’t price itself out of the non-traditional student market, the University System of Georgia is slashing tuition rates for the online courses.

The following interview is with Mike Rogers, assistant vice chancellor for faculty development at the University System of Georgia (USG), and Jon Sizemore, USG’s assistant vice chancellor for distance education. This fall, the USG will be reducing the cost of its online core classes — offered through eCore — for students statewide. In this interview, Rogers and Sizemore discuss the mission and goals of the eCore program and the importance of the cost-reduction strategy, and explain how the institutions running eCore will cope with the reduced revenues.

Click here to read key takeaways.

1. How does eCore improve access to higher education for Georgia’s citizens?

Jon Sizemore (JS): eCore is the online core curriculum for the University System of Georgia and it makes access easier for students who can’t attend [class] in an on-campus setting. … By adding online courses into their mix, it [make higher education] work out with their home schedule and work schedule.

Mike Rogers (MR): The answer to this is basically convenience, which a lot of the time trumps price for students. They’ll pay a little bit more for the convenience of having access to the course whenever they want it.

JS: Also, we’ve structured our fee structure for online courses so that if the student is attending fully online, there may be other campus fees that are waived for them since they’re not participating in campus activities.

2. Why is price such an important factor in the decision-making of non-traditional students?

MR: I have taught for eCore and I have students anywhere from the age of 16 to the age of 62 in my classes. If they’re the 16-year-old dual-enrollment high school student they want to be able to get college credit, but an inexpensive option for that is important. For the working mother with two kids who’s got two jobs …  cost is important to them. It comes down in some cases to paying $120 for a textbook for paying $120 for groceries, they’re going to opt for groceries and wait on the textbook. That’s why cost becomes very important to them in the decision-making as far as what they take and when they take it.

JS: Non-traditional students may not have as many financial aid options as traditional students. They may be attending only part-time and so not qualify for federal financial aid or they may have already expended their financial aid opportunities. So there’s more likelihood that they’ll be paying out-of-pocket expenses to return to college and that makes the price point critical for them.

MR: Our non-traditional students are also older so they’re a little bit more financially savvy. They want to make sure if they’re paying for something, they’re getting it at a good value and getting good quality for what they’re paying for.

3. This fall, eCore is going to lower its prices by $20 per credit hour. What was the impetus behind this drop?

JS: The Board of Regents of the USG is very concerned about the affordability of education for students. That is driving a lot of our thinking here in the university system around how we can improve affordability in all areas.

eCore, being a university system initiative, was a good point of attack for us to begin to address affordability. We’ve also incorporated thinking about how to lower cost of educational resources — textbooks, for example. eCore in fact has an initiative that has adopted open educational resource textbooks for seven eCore courses that has resulted in substantial savings for students. We hope to expand that to the entire eCore program.

MR: The Board became very concerned that we were pricing ourselves out of our target audience so [we took] a look at tuition, what its costing students and where we could reduce costs. At eCore, the textbook availability to a lot of different students became a primary [consideration.]

4. How will eCore recover the lost profit incurred from the price drop?

MR: We have a separate unit that manages eCore at one of our institutions and they get no funding from the system; they are entirely self-sufficient and self–sustaining. They handle the marketing, they handle the student support. …

They will probably cut back slightly on their marketing and on their student support. When I say that, there are folks over there whose primarily purpose is to pick up the phone and call students [who have been identified by faculty as behind on their studies]. It may be as opposed to one person making 500 calls, they may be making 550. [Additionally], the marketing budget may drop a little bit.

That’s how they’re going to recover the cost from the reduction in tuition at this point.

There has never been any discussion of lowering the quality of these courses. There’s never been any discussion of paying faculty less in order to make this happen. Those things are primary considerations in these courses, to maintain the quality and maintain the faculty pay.

JS: As a public university system, it’s not about profit for us. It’s about revenue to make the program sustainable. The eCore program has been in existence for over 10 years now, and we made a significant investment in developing these courses and we have continuing costs to maintain the quality of those courses. What has happened over time is the program has grown in scale to include 11 institutions, approximately 10,000 students taking courses over the academic year through eCore, so we’ve actually achieved cost savings already through scale. … We’re passing that cost-savings onto students. Now that we have the scalability, we can afford to provide the level of student services and the quality to students at a lower cost.

MR: In turn we also support faculty with additional training, so again the money that is “made” is pulled back into eCore to improve it from both a faculty and student perspective.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of the access created by the eCore program and the value of increasing that access by reducing the cost of entry?

MR: We’ve got a lot of non-traditional learners in Georgia who have some college [experience]. It’s become very important to reach out to these people and have them come to us. We’re about to launch a major marketing campaign in that effort. We feel eCore is a major [support] for students to come back — for the mother who has the kids, who has the job and the husband — so that [they can have] access to courses at 10 p.m. and  can work for a couple of hours. The convenience factor is very important. The courses are quality courses, they go through a faculty governance and faculty review, so they’re not done in a vacuum anywhere.

JS: eCore has really become the access point for us in the University System that allows students who can’t attend a regular campus to start their college or return to college to complete their degree. It is certainly very important for nontraditional students.

As the spearhead of our efforts to create opportunities for students to return to college, eCore has become the foundation for expanded access to programs across the University System. In fact, to complement eCore, the University System has also created a program called eMajor. eCore provides the first two years of college online and eMajor is now developing online bachelor’s degree programs so students can matriculate directly into online bachelors’ degree programs.

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Key Takeaways

  • The tuition reduction for eCore was done primarily to increase access to for-credit higher education for non-traditional students.
  • The revenue reduction that will occur as a result of the lowered tuition will likely be absorbed through divesting from marketing and student support efforts.
  • eCore provides flexible and high-quality pathways to degree completion for adults statewide; it’s critical that the USG not price itself out of this market.

Author Perspective: