AUSTIN — State leaders have hailed online education as the elixir for mushrooming college costs, but online courses have proven to be more expensive for most students than traditional classrooms in Texas, an analysis by The Dallas Morning News shows.
Tuition for online classes can be more than 20 percent higher than regular classes at some universities, once extra fees or additional costs per credit hour are included, according to the News analysis.
Among the 18 universities analyzed, only the University of North Texas in Denton and the University of Texas at Austin had lower costs for online classes. Although a handful of the so-called $10,000 degrees backed by Gov. Rick Perry may carry a smaller tuition bill, the quality of those degrees has been questioned.
Online learning is not a panacea for the soaring tuition costs in Texas and across the nation, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
"There's a sort of snake oil quality to some of the facile answers that people periodically throw out there," he said. "Online education can be a tremendously valuable component for actual academic delivery, but if you were to do it right, it would not only not save money, it would cost money."
Still, some Texas lawmakers and public policy groups suggest online courses and online degrees are the answer to affordable education by allowing universities to reduce facility and faculty costs.
Thomas Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said one model for the state could be putting up to half of the online classes at institutions such as UT or Texas Tech University, which would save money on facilities and cut tuition costs, he said.
"If we could innovate in such a way that it affected, say, half of the classes, that would produce a substantial cost savings, and that cost savings could be translated into keeping tuitions down for students," he said.
Booming growth in the state, coupled with increasing college costs, has put a spotlight on access to and affordability of higher education.
Texas lawmakers have searched for ways to rope in costs.
Ahead of next year's legislative session, the House and Senate higher education committees are looking at how online and blended courses -- classes that mix online and in-class learning -- could be used to reduce costs and expand access to college.
So far, students are generally paying more for online courses at most Texas public colleges and universities.
The University of Texas at Arlington, for example, charges an additional distance education fee of $75 to $90 per online course to "defray the cost of course development and implementation," said Pete Smith, vice provost for digital teaching and learning at UTA.
Community colleges are no exception. County residents in the Dallas County Community College District pay $156 per three-hour course regardless of whether the instruction is online or in the classroom.
Pam Quinn, provost of Dallas Colleges Online, the virtual campus for DCCCD, said instructor costs are equivalent for online and traditional classes.
The cost for technology support, including its 24/7 online help desk, learning management system and student advisers, takes away any savings that could be gained from not using facilities, she said.
"When we've looked at the price for this, there's still the cost whether you're online or on-ground," she said.
Texas is not alone in higher costs for online classes. An analysis of more than 300 public universities and colleges by U.S. News & World Report in 2013 found that the average per-credit, in-state cost for an online bachelor's degree program is $277, compared with $243 for brick-and-mortar classes.
Blanche Deutsch, 49, of Dallas is a student at UNT in Denton. She has taken several online classes at Dallas County Community College and continues to take some online courses at UNT for the convenience.
"In my experience, the online courses are geared for more students ... and some of the professors use the same course for two or three years, so you would think it would be discounted," she said.
Online classes "seem like a cost savings for the university, but we're still paying the same amount," she said.
University officials say the higher tuition rates for online courses are the result of expensive infrastructure and the costs for designing the courses, which often involve partnerships or contracts with outside online education providers.
Nassirian said the infrastructure costs make it difficult to create online classes cheaply on a small scale.
"It's not a simple cyber-copy of what happens in the classroom," he said. "You don't have the immediacy of interaction or the non-discursive signals."
Many Texas colleges and universities partner with outside companies, which tack on costs to the classes.
Texas A&M University at Commerce partnered with Pearson, a British educational company best known in the state for designing standardized tests, to create Web material for its online degree in organizational leadership. The company makes between $236 and $275 per student enrolled in the class, according to its contract.
The University of Texas at Austin contracted with edX, a provider of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, to develop high-quality, online courses for $10 million.
The University of Texas System is working with at least 17 companies that provide online education services. The Dallas Morning News sought copies of the contracts for the UT system and three other institutions under the state's open records law, but the majority of the requests were appealed to the attorney general's office, citing proprietary issues.
UTA and Lamar University in Beaumont work with Academic Partnerships, a for-profit venture created by Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best.
The most recent contract was referred to the attorney general's office for approval, but a 2011 review by The News of university contracts with the company found that Academic Partnerships received as much as 80 percent of student tuition in online classes provided at the public institutions.
And universities could ultimately face a loss of some state funds with online courses because budgets are based on the number of students in a classroom, said Sen. Kel Seliger, the Amarillo Republican who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.
"We have to address the funding," Seliger said. "If it's going to be a really good, effective course, A&M or any other institution is going to put a lot of time and money into it."
Beyond the costs, online courses raise concerns about dropout rates and class quality.
In 2011, Perry challenged public universities to create affordable bachelor's degrees that cost $10,000 or less, including tuition, fees and books. The cost savings was largely expected to be achieved by putting courses online. So far, a handful of universities offer a full degree for $10,000, though most of those require previous college credit from a community college or high school.
Texas A&M at Commerce launched its "affordable baccalaureate," an online degree this year in organizational leadership. Students with no previous college credits should be able to complete the program in three years for $13,000 to $15,000, according to the school's website.
Nassirian said there is a lot of optimism and a lot of skepticism surrounding the $10,000 degrees. A key concern is whether schools charging $10,000 for a degree can afford the number of educators it takes to maintain rigor in the program.
Another concern is the completion rate.
Community college students are less likely to complete online courses than they are classroom-based classes, according to a study from the Teachers College at Columbia University. The study tracked 51,000 students between 2004 and 2009, and found that completion rates for Web classes were 8 percentage points lower than their in-class counterparts.
Quinn, of Dallas County Community College, said her office is working on making highly interactive, engaging courses as a way to combat higher dropout rates among online students.
UT reported dismal completion rates, ranging between 1 percent and 13 percent, for not-for-credit MOOC courses offered last fall.
(c)2014 The Dallas Morning News