Why Moving to Online Instruction Won’t Reduce College Costs

In an article published by Brookings, authors Steven Hemelt and Kevin Stange report that their analysis suggests that moving classes online is unlikely to reduce instructional costs. According to the authors (who are associate professors of public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan, respectively), evidence on the relationship between online coursework and costs is sparse, and the evidence on how online instruction differs by program and field is largely nonexistent.

They write that hands-on activities in lab-based sciences and performance arts may be hard to translate into online substitutes. Even fields more readily convertible to online courses may find it difficult to replicate the in-person, peer-to-peer, and instructor-to-student exchanges in an online class.

Professors Hemelt and Stange cite a recently published research paper authored by them and three others entitled “Why is Math Cheaper than English? Understanding Cost Differences in Higher Education.” According to Hemelt and Stange, they analyzed the use of online instruction for over 3,000 departments at more than 200 four-year institutions.

The prevalence of online instruction varied dramatically by department, and the average share of credits offered online was six percent. Based on their analysis, the short answer is that online instruction costs will not decrease over the short run. They further write that it turns out that large lectures with standardized grading are fairly cost-effective for the institutions in their study.

As public policy professors, the authors propose three takeaways for education leaders and policymakers. First, they state that the evidence from their study indicates that increases in courses offered online are unlikely to lead to substantial cost savings for colleges and universities.

Second, they state that “recent research indicates that online or blended coursework is not as effective as face-to-face instruction, especially for students from underserved backgrounds and those struggling academically.” Therefore, universities need to offer additional support in tutoring, mentoring, and mental health services which will likely make online instruction only more expensive.

Third, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted deep inequities in online access and supplementary supports as well as facets of education that cannot be easily switched to online instruction. Thus, national leaders need to prioritize creating better public health conditions, enabling universities to return to in-person college instruction as soon as possible.

I disagree with the authors’ three takeaways. In their first takeaway, they cite their study which uses department data from over 200 traditional institutions with an average online population of six percent. Anyone with any experience in analyzing costs could tell you that offering online courses in combination with face-to-face classes in a primarily face-to-face environment will not be less expensive until you leverage the online enrollments and flip the percentage of students that are online with the percentage that are face-to-face.

One of the more famous examples of this is the online master’s degree in Computer Science at Georgia Tech. It’s the same curriculum but the program is offered online for approximately $7,000 vs. $45,000 face-to-face, and there are thousands of online students versus several hundred face-to-face students.

I can also cite as an example, American Public University System, the all-online institution that I have led since 2004. Our ability to scale enrollments in online programs has enabled us to hold our tuition flat for our undergraduate military students since 2001 and only increase it by $35/credit hour for non-military students since 2001.

In addition, we cap our class sizes at 25 students, having discovered that capping class size leads to more engagement and better learning outcomes. Traditional institutions with a substantial majority of face-to-face courses and programs do not have the ability to pivot their cost structure and take advantage of technology.

Second, the authors are incorrect in their belief that research indicates face-to-face instruction leads to better outcomes than online or blended programs. The study they cite used data from a single institution, DeVry University.

If they were more involved with online education, they would be aware of the U.S. Department of Education metastudy, “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.” This work identified more than 1,000 studies of online learning between 1996 and 2008 and concluded that on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.

Third, their last conclusion is an opinion that we should return to face-to-face instruction as quickly as possible. If I were a professor at a traditional institution, I would prefer the luxury of returning to my previous normal as well. I agree with Ryan Craig and others who have recently written that the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the ridiculously high pricing of “bundled” higher education, and the genie is not likely to go back into the bottle.

If Congress and the White House provide substantial funding for higher education in the next version of the CARES Act, it’s possible that many colleges will survive longer than predicted. Barring the distribution of a miracle vaccine soon, I think it’s inevitable that many traditional schools are online for most of the 2020-2021 academic year and possibly the fall of 2021.

By then, it will be evident to millions that there are quality online education options that do not cost $30,000 – $70,000 per year. Affordable online instruction is here to stay. Contrary to Hemelt and Stange’s article, unbundled online education does cost less, and students and their parents will take notice.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence