Ohio State Raising Fees For Online Courses Is A Big Deal

When big education institutions make policy changes, it can be deceiving. We think it’s big news, or maybe, because we care, we think that it should be big news. Whether it is or not depends on the news as well as the institution. We think and talk too much about what Harvard does, probably not nearly enough about what happens at the University of Central Florida, the largest school in the country.

On both measures though, the decision Ohio State University leaders made this week ought to be big. The school is big – enrollment of around 60,000, making it top five or ten in sheer size, depending on how you count. The news, also big. Or at least it should be.

According to local news coverage, university Trustees voted to hike tuition and fees. New in-state freshmen will pay an extra 3.8% in tuition. Out-of-state freshmen will see prices go up 5%. But that’s not the big deal. Prices go up. At most schools, the amount of scholarship and grant aid has been outpacing these increases, leaving actual costs pretty flat for some time.

What is a big deal is that the Trustees also raised fees for out-of-state students taking online classes. And by “raised,” I mean a ton. Last year, out-of-state students who took all their classes online paid a $5 surcharge. Next year, the out-of-state, online surcharge will be $19,493.

The local coverage of the change did not say why the school decided to add nearly $20,000 to the annual tab for remote online students. But the result is pretty clear. With this change, remote online students will pay $34,717 a year to take online classes, out-of-state students who study on campus at Ohio State will pay nearly the same – $35,019.

The new price structure means that one of the largest schools in the country has leveled up the prices for their online and in-person classes.

From a reputation and degree-value perspective, that’s a great decision. The marketplace is overrun with cheap and easy online degrees of questionable quality – most are churned out by shady for-profit schools as well as few mass-market assembly line schools that are nominally “non-profit.” Institutions that care about their brands don’t want to get in a price war with those places. None of them, Ohio State included, will win a cost and price race to the bottom.  

By making their in-person degrees and online degrees cost the same, they’re saying ‘this is what an Ohio State degree costs and we think it’s worth it. There’s no cheap version of a degree from Ohio State.’ If the school stands behind an online degree and an in-person degree equally, if they say they are the same, they should be priced comparably.

It may not seem like it, but it’s good for students too. There are real, actual and important benefits to studying at a college campus.  Resources, relationships and experiences can be found on campus that simply can’t be delivered at Zoom U. True, there are hidden costs to being on campus, but if it costs just a few hundred dollars more to be on campus than it costs to study at home, that’s an amazing deal. There should not be any incentive for a student to surrender the best parts of college.

But the reason this Ohio State decision is a big deal is definitely not good news for online learning evangelists and investors.

From the beginning, those who saw online programs as the future of college, as the outside dynamic that was going to change colleges, rested their arguments on three points – that online programs would expand access, improve quality and be less expensive than “traditional” on-campus college degree programs.

The access part was easy – online college is obviously more accessible than campus options. The quality argument has been questionable at best and is clearly not aided by the low-cost, low-quality programs that hawk online degrees around every corner. And the Ohio State decision to level-up the prices of its online offerings, really cuts against the idea that online programs can be, or will be, less expensive. At many well-regarded schools, they never have been less expensive.    

In reality, there are legitimate costs pressures on online courses that don’t exist on campus, making it very difficult to design and deliver good online programs inexpensively. Bad ones, sure. Good ones, like the kind Ohio State will be sure to say they provide, remain a price challenge.

Maybe the costs of the programs isn’t why Ohio State moved on their online prices. Maybe they’re just looking for ways to get a few more dollars into their balance sheets, or something else. Whatever the reason, when a school of Ohio State’s size moves their remote, online classes in line with their in-person ones, that’s big news. Or at least is will be.


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