Cheaper online degrees: “a lofty goal”

 Illustrated by Chris Kindred

Virginia is considering using online degree programs as a means of potentially making higher education more affordable and convenient, despite experts’ claims that effective implementation will be difficult to achieve.

House Bill 2320, proposed by Delegate Ben Cline (R-Lexington), tasks the state with studying how to implement online degree programs in conjunction with Virginia universities at a tuition cost of $4,000 per academic year “or such cost that is achievable.”

“The goal is to start a new conversation about higher education in Virginia,” Cline said. “A conversation about making college more affordable for Virginians.”

Cline said he envisions a system where students will graduate with a degree from the university where they took the majority of their online classes, but he hopes the standards will be the same across Virginia’s universities.

Currently, the most affordable way to achieve a degree in Virginia is to start at a two-year institution before transferring to a four-year school, which can be done for around $26,000,  according to a report released last month by The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. In other words, schools would have to cut that price by $10,000 to achieve the goal of $4,000.

Programs like this will make university degrees and education more available to more people, according to Cline, but individuals on the university-level are worried about the financial burden placed on the institution for creating degree programs at such a low price.

“It’s a lofty goal,” said Juanita Sharpe, assistant vice provost for academic and faculty affairs at VCU.

Currently, VCU’s nursing and clinical laboratory science programs are the only degrees offered online. These tracks offer more convenience for students — allowing them to graduate in three years if they come in with the right prerequisite classes, Sharpe said. But VCU, like other universities in Virginia charges the same price for online degrees as it does one that is earned in an offline setting.

“To do distance education well is not cheap,” said Gardner Campbell, who heads the strategic use of digital technologies at VCU.

There are unseen costs that people might not think about for online classes.

“One of the great things about distance education is it can erase barriers of time and space, but time and space still exist,” Campbell said.

There are the obvious costs the school would incur for more online classes: hardwear and softwear, namely. But Campbell points out that when there is not a classroom setting there needs to be a “complex communication system” to help students when their technology isn’t working or when they don’t understand an assignment.

“So that’s why in the end it’s not really cheaper in every case to go online,” he said.

Though the implementation of the proposed goal could be difficult for schools to comply with, Campbell says he understands why the legislation was brought to the table in the first place: the rising cost of college and college debt. The SCHEV report called the program “innovative and worthwhile” and Campbell agreed, but there are some things that are going to need to change before it is implemented.

The report laid out its main areas of concern fairly clearly: How will the state increase the number and variety of online degree programs? How will the the state identify the areas that aren’t currently covered by existing programs? How will the state identity student demand? And, perhaps most importantly, how will the state reach the low-cost goal?

Campbell said that increased state funding for a project like this would make the vision more realistic. The current bill has only asked for the state to research the idea, which means there was no mention of state funding.

“At some point,” he said, “without public funding for what’s recognized as a public good it’s like saying we’re going to have more and cheaper cars, but everyone’s going to buy their own. Well how’re you going to do that?”

Cline said he hopes the program will receive seed funding from the next legislative session. The Secretary of Education has to report to a number of committees with a final plan by Oct. 16, 2016. Cline has been in conversation with his colleagues about funding the program and hopes the Appropriations Committee will see it as a worthy investment for the state.

When asked what he thought possibility was that universities would receive more funding in the next legislative session, Campbell said he had no comment.

Print Managing Editor, Matt Leonard

11295907_825585874177601_7322101861147123120_nMatt is a senior print journalism major and political science minor graduating this December. Matt began at the CT as a contributing writer before moving up to staff writer and online news editor. Matt worked at The Denver Post with the web team as a Dow Jones News Fund digital intern last summer, and previously interned with WTVR/CBS6. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn


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