State, UMN assess cost of online education, find little difference to in-person

A new report, presented last week, was mandated by the Legislature last session.

Yves De Jesus

After some lawmakers raised questions about the cost-benefit of online classes, a University of Minnesota report found they cost about as much as classroom-based courses. 

The 10-page report, presented at last week’s Board of Regents meeting, studied the difference in cost between online courses and in-person courses. The report was mandated by the Legislature last session as part of a broader exploration into cheaper alternatives to offset the rising costs of higher education across the state. 

Senate higher education committee member Sen. Gregory Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, said he had heard concerns at the Capitol about the cost of online classes. Though according to the report, three of the most popular online programs at the University cost the same per credit as its in-person counterpart. The Carlson School of Management online MBA program was around $100 cheaper than the in-person option.

“… there were some accusations that there were some examples where their courses were $400 to $500 more online than taking that same course in a classroom,” Clausen said, who sits on the Senate’s higher education committee. “Overall I think they did a nice job of laying out this, and after seeing the University report, I don’t have really great concerns.”

Faculty training and 24/7 online support add to the cost of online courses. Some University colleges also have student fees to help cover these costs, according to the report.   

“I do understand that there are actual costs that you pay when offering something online that you don’t have when you’re offering just the regular classroom experience,” said House higher education Vice Chair Rep. Laurie Pryor, DFL-Minnetonka.

Regent Thomas Anderson said he’s unsure if online education could ever cut costs, but he said it may bring in more revenue by increasing the number of available seats in existing classes.

“If you’re already teaching it and there are [now] additional students watching it and then participating with sending their papers via email, you get that revenue with virtually no expense,” Anderson said.  

Nearly 11% of graduate enrollment system-wide is online, compared to around 8% of undergraduate enrollment. 

Lee-Ann Breuch, chair of the University’s Writing Studies department, said enrollment in online education is popular with full-time professionals in graduate school because they need flexibility with their busy schedules. 

Breuch said the Master of Science in Scientific and Technical Communication program saw increased enrollment when it went fully-online for the first time last fall.  

“We’ve known this because they told us, they told us through the years,” Breuch said. “So as we began offering more and more online classes, we noticed that that was becoming more popular.”

Moving forward, Clausen said he plans to hold hearings to discuss potential further expansion into online education with the Senate’s higher ed committee. 

“I’m hopeful that we’ll have hearing days where we invite the [the Minnesota State system and the University] in and they go through the report with us and respond to questions that committee members might have,” he said.