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Can Online Education Really Reduce Tuition?

May 2, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Online education has been making appearances on the campaign trail recently—with political candidates, particularly of the fiscal-responsibility and Tea-Party persuasion, introducing it as a way to keep college tuition in check. But can online classes really reduce tuition at schools? Here’s a look at the pros and cons.

Potential Cost-Savers

No costs for on-site classrooms and services

When you run some classes online, you don’t have to pay for basic services required to host them on-campus: in other words, you don’t have to pay the light bill, the electricity bill, the heat bill, and the rent on that extra building to house all those extra classes. A teacher can run the class from a single office—or even from home—and students study at home, too.

Reduced faculty costs

Woman Computer

While it’s true that online education could reduce tuition, it’s also possible that it could have little or no impact on a school’s bottom line.



Colleges everywhere often try to reduce costs by offering larger lecture-style classes. Some online classes—the experimental “MOOC’s,” or Massive Online Open Courses, being run at places such as Yale and MIT— can attract over 100,000 online students, and may be run by a single instructor or a handful. It would take many more professors to educate 100,000 students on campus—if you could find a campus that big.

Reduced costs for materials

Class materials and support services would be less expensive as well. Each student would be responsible for his or her own study areas, computer, Internet connection, printers, and other hardware that is sometimes provided at in-person campuses. While e-textbooks aren’t widely available yet, there’s a hope that they will also come to replace hardcopy textbooks for a much lower price point in the future, saving students money.

Possible Expenses

Technical upgrades may prove expensive

Not every college has the infrastructure in place to administer, say, a Massive Online Open Course with 90,000 students. It could take serious investment for some colleges to introduce such technologies that would facilitate these classes. Each college would have to analyze the costs and benefits to determine whether the cost savings would in fact impact college tuition.

Training faculty may prove expensive

In addition, not every faculty member may have the technical know-how to administer classes online. Technical training for faculty may prove to be another important investment that some colleges would have to make in order to get a strong online program going.

Other Considerations

Online schools aren’t necessarily the cheapest

If you look at average tuition for various types of schools, you’ll find that online education isn’t always the cheapest out there. Traditional colleges that offer an online and a traditional track to the same degree often charge the same—perhaps minus room and board—for each degree. And for-profit schools, which are often administered either partially or entirely online, have a reputation for charging fairly high tuition rates—$14,000 per year as of 2010, compared with $2,500 per year at community colleges. Low tuition rates don’t naturally follow where online education leads.

Some programs can’t be entirely online

Add to that the fact that some courses of study—particularly those that have a large lab component, such as nursing or the hard sciences—can’t be administered entirely online. You’ll still have to come in to complete key hands-on components. In addition, online education is not permitted by regulation in some fields—such as law.  

While it’s true that online education could reduce tuition, it’s also possible that it could have little or no impact on a school’s bottom line. Online education doesn’t always reduce tuition, as you can tell when you look at the price tag of some for-profit schools. However, done right, online education does have the potential to help reduce costs in some ways—and bring an education to more students worldwide.


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