I was asked recently whether distance education, in the context of community colleges, is “cost-effective.” It’s one of those seemingly simple questions that becomes less simple as you dig into it.
At the course level, the major expense for either in-person or online classes is faculty labor. The colleges with which I work pay the same rates for in-person and online classes, so that’s a wash.
Infrastructure costs for online education are high up front, but with low marginal increases. You need the LMS license, IT support and technical backbone whether you’re offering 100 online classes or 1,000. (Yes, LMS costs scale a little with use, but they tend to be priced in tiers. Within a tier, the marginal increase is zero.) Amortizing the infrastructure over more classes reduces the per-capita cost, so a system that might be prohibitively expensive at pilot level could be sustainable at scale.
Ramping up online offerings brings some professional development costs, but those tend to amortize over time, too.
Robust online offerings can reduce the wear and tear on the physical infrastructure of a campus. The savings from that may be mostly theoretical at first, but they add up over time.
I refer to classes rather than students because the idea that there are two distinct populations—on-site and online—is a myth. Most students who take online classes in community college also take on-site classes. They mix and match to optimize schedules around work, family, transportation and personal lives. If we eliminate online classes, we’d likely see significant enrollment drops as students either take fewer classes at a time or just walk away altogether.
Of course, the second half of “cost-effective” is “effective.” There, too, much depends on what’s measured.
At many colleges, the pass rate for online classes is slightly lower than for on-site classes. The gaps have shrunk over the years, but they still exist. But it isn’t as simple as that. The online paradox is that students who take mostly on-site schedules with one online class tend to finish at higher rates than students who are entirely on-site. The scheduling flexibility seems to help.
Since the pandemic, too, the easy distinction between onsite and online has blurred. HyFlex classes, where they’re offered, allow students to mix and match on a day-by-day basis. Surprisingly, at least to me, early reports are that most students show up in person most of the time; the distance option allows flexibility when childcare or transportation issues arise. There’s a cost to HyFlex, but to the extent that it results in better outcomes, it improves effectiveness.
It’s possible to do a pure profit-and-loss calculation, given enough data, but that presumes that the point of a community college is profit. It isn’t. The point is to serve the needs of the community, whether through transfer or through programs designed to lead directly to employment. Improving cost-effectiveness isn’t the same as cutting costs. It’s about getting the most bang for the buck. Economies of scale can lower per-capita costs, even if the larger scale means that overall spending is higher. CUNY’s ASAP program, for instance, raises overall spending while decreasing cost per graduate. In that case, cost-effectiveness and costs both go up.
Answers like these to seemingly simple questions can seem evasive or disingenuous. But a too-quick yes or no, without defining the terms, can lead to major mistakes. Better to take a moment first and get the question right.