Online Residential and the End of Course Scarcity

It’s pretty common in higher education for students not to get the courses they need to graduate on time. Here’s a quote from a recent report from UT Austin on graduation rates:

Research conducted by the task force also revealed that for many students an impediment to graduation is availability of courses needed to graduate. It is easy to see how course availability could play such an important role. In some majors, missing one course in a sequence, either because the course was not being taught in the semester it was needed, or because all of the seats were full, could mean a delay of graduation by one semester or by a full year. With a four-and-a-half year graduation rate of about 64%, those half-semester delays add up to many students delaying graduation beyond the four-year mark. Given the importance of course availability for overall graduation rates, it is critical that the university appoint a member of the administration to oversee availability of courses that are required for graduation.

I could find more global data on this, but if you are a public institution and you don’t see your on school in that statement, I’d be surprised.

The odd thing is that course scarcity doesn’t really need to exist. Here’s a simple plan to eliminate it — make it policy at your institution that every required course must have an online extension course. Students can choose the face-to-face version or the online version. If the face-to-face version fills up, the online version stays open (at least to matriculated students). Students are registering in advance of the course, so if you need to make additional hires to cover the online overflow, you can do that. Over time, though, you’d probably be able to anticipate registration and staff appropriately. Even better, you could organize the experience the way ds106 is run — with the online and face-to-face sections being taught as a single course by the same instructor.

With all required courses having online extensions the scheduling conflict nightmare goes away. And you can tell parents on the campus tour who ask “What if my kid can’t get the courses they need to graduate on time?” that actually your college guarantees that they can get the courses they need on time.

I’m a parent of an eighth grader who is quickly hurtling towards the college selection process, and I will tell you — that’s a feature that might lock me into one college over another.

This is just really one aspect of what a focus on online residential courses could do to solve the problems we face in public institutions; I plan to talk more about this in the coming months. If your institution is not looking at the possibilities of online residential, it’s probably past time.

How Much Does EdX *Really* Cost?


A quick thought here. The institution I’m at charges $13,000 or so a year in tuition. EdX, the new MOOC darling, costs zero. Or at least that’s what you hear.

But that’s a rotten comparison, really. If you planned to use EdX for an undergraduate education, you’d have to feed and clothe yourself during that time without having an income. That’s why when people talk about student debt and the student debt crisis they don’t separate out room and board debt from “educational” debt. It’s all debt associated with an individual’s education.

At a college, this expense shows up as room and board, and while there are gaps that require some other place to live over Thanksgiving break and Christmas, it’s a pretty good estimate of is required to pursue a university education eight months a year, being roughly equal to what our off-campus students pay. At Keene, that cost is about $9,000 a year (assuming work is found over the summer).

So getting your four years of edX certificates is going to cost you $36,000 with no real possibility of discounts (room and board is pretty fixed), and currently no chance of federal aid. Getting a Keene State degree is going to cost you more — $88,000 list price — but tuition discounting and federal aid will bring that down considerably.

This doesn’t even get into opportunity cost, textbooks,  and other factors.  And, of course, we could do a much more detailed comparison. But the point is that education at a “marginal cost of zero” is a myth that only exists from the perspective of the educational institution. From the point of view of an undergraduate, education is always moderately expensive. With that as a given, the main financial concern is not going to be whether MOOC offers an education for $36,000 versus $88,000 — it’s going to be whether the $36,000 invested in the supposedly “free” course translates into increased opportunities for the future, relative to the investment made in it, and whether it does that reliably.