Online Ed: The Quality vs. Cost Equation

Online Ed: The Quality vs. Cost Equation

Over at the Reuters blog, political commentator and senior fellow at the Libertarian-inclined R Street Institute Reihan Salam has posted a column in which he contends (to quote his title) that “Online education can be good or cheap, but not both.”

Salam cites the recent San Jose State partnership with Udacity; he observes that the initiative, intended “to create courses that were rigorous, accessible and cost-effective,” didn’t exactly pass with flying colors. (It didn’t get off to a great start, either.)

…Earlier this month San Jose State suspended five of its new online courses, all of which were offered in conjunction with Udacity and had no classroom learning. Udacity’s entry-level courses were offered for $150 each, far less than the $620 San Jose State charges for traditional classroom-based courses.

The problem, however, is that between 56 percent and 76 percent of students who took the final exams ultimately failed them.

Salam cites some unsettling statistics regarding graduation rates for state schools, community colleges and for-profit physical and online universities; it’s not a pretty picture. And, as he points out,

True MOOCs that make almost no use of faculty labor will be very cheap to deliver, but one can easily imagine that they will be plagued by an attrition rate at least as high as what we see in today’s for-profit colleges.

We’re still in the formative era for online education, which Salam acknowledges; “That online learning will experience growing pains is to be expected.” And there’s also the inconvenient truth that’s always been the case about higher ed, whether online or in person: “[O]nce you get past the students who are the most prepared and most eager to learn, you have to apply increasing amounts of both help and hassle.”

The irony, of course, is that the students who need help and hassle the least, like the super-well-prepared and super-eager undergraduates at schools like Stanford, tend to get the most personal attention and structure. The students who need help and hassle the most, like ill-prepared community college students who are not entirely sure that an associate’s degree is worth much in the way of time and effort, tend to get the least personal attention and structure.

Do you think affordability necessarily compromises quality? Or that quality comes with so high a price tag that tuition will inevitably be steep for credible online programs? Share your thoughts with us, below.

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