Some colleges charge higher tuition for online classes

Kamille Rocha
Kamille Rocha, a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, is taking two online classes this semester. Rocha's classes cost 15 percent more than the same courses offered in a classroom.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Kamille Rocha, a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, loves the convenience of online courses. Rocha, who's also a nanny, is taking two online classes this semester.

But the 22-year old is less than enamored with how much she pays in tuition. Her online classes cost more than her onsite classes.

"For an onsite three-credit class it's $488.43," she said. "And for an online three-credit class it's $561.18."

That's $72, or 15 percent more, per semester for taking a course online rather than in a classroom.

Data from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system shows online classes at MnSCU schools cost an average of 19 percent more than those taught in the classroom. MnSCU schools can decide individually how much to charge per credit.

The University of Minnesota charges extra for its online courses as well, tacking on a fee that can range from $15 to $30 per credit hour. It's something colleges and universities in surrounding states do as well.

Pat Opatz, the director of Minnesota Online at MnSCU, said that's because putting a class online isn't cheap. An instructor still needs be paid to teach the class, which often requires as much interaction with students as in a classroom.

"While the online piece creates more flexibility, the increased cost is an offsetting barrier."

Opatz also said schools incur extra costs when they put classes online.

"There are additional services that are required not only for the student, but for the faculty, to help them deliver those courses online," Opatz said.

Those additional services include offering technical help to students and faculty to solve problems with software, for example.

Opatz doesn't know how much that costs in total, because the MnSCU accounting system doesn't specifically track those figures.

Because they aren't tracked, it's hard to say how much the increased tuition is directly tied to higher expenses.

That bothers Travis Johnson, the vice president of the Minnesota State College Students Association. Johnson also takes classes online from Lake Superior Community College in Duluth.

"While the online piece creates more flexibility, the increased cost is an offsetting barrier. That's just really a concerning to us," Johnson said. "There's campuses that don't even charge a difference, and then there's some that charge a lot more."

Only four of MnSCU's schools don't charge more for online classes. One is Anoka Technical College. Whether it's online or in the classroom, a credit hour at Anoka Tech is $141.

The college does have extra costs associated with putting classes online. It pays an instructor $3,500 a year to help faculty set up and operate online classes. The school also pays MnSCU $22,000 a year to put classes on the system's computer network.

Anoka Tech's vice president of academic and student affairs, John Cacich, thinks that's a bill the school should pick up.

"Those are the kinds of costs that we believe we need to just view as part of the costs of doing business," he said.

Keeping the cost of online classes the same as in-class courses is important to their students, especially in today's economy, Cachich said.

Online students at Alexandria Technical College, on the other hand, pay $199 per credit hour, 48 percent more than their in-class colleagues.

Jan Doebbert, vice president of academic and student affairs at Alexandria Tech, has heard from students who've noticed the difference. But he said they're getting more value -- specifically extra technical support.

Alexandria Tech and three other colleges in northwestern Minnesota pay nearly $2 million a year to operate a technical service center in Perham.

"Working together, we've been able to build a model that's really created some significant advantages for students," Doebbert said.

The college's $199 online credit hour price is still lower than for-profit online universities, he said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants both MnSCU and the University of Minnesota to put at least 25 percent of their class credits online by 2015 -- credits that at this point, cost students more.

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