Arizona State University (ASU) has the third largest online enrollment among public schools with some 30,000 students taking at least one ASU class online. It has been offering fully online degrees for more than a dozen years, and their website says they now offer “more than 150 highly respected degree programs available 100% online,” making ASU both an early adaptor to online college programs and a large provider.
In April, the ASU Action Lab, which studies online and other technology-enabled education systems and models, released a study of online learning called Making Digital Work. The report aims to study how colleges can improve outcomes through best uses of digital technology. The Making Digital Work report has many embarrassing and misleading research mistakes and, among its findings, claims that online college programs can “Improve the financial picture [for colleges] by growing revenue while reducing operating costs.”
The growing revenue part is pretty straight-forward. By putting college classes and programs online, they are available to more tuition-paying students and more students equals more money.
But it’s the report’s offer that online programs reduce operating costs that stands out.
First, it’s worth noting that the report is described as, “in-depth case studies of six major institutions of higher education that have been pioneers in digital learning.” The studied six are: ASU, the University of Central Florida, Georgia State University, Houston Community College, the Kentucky Community & Technical College System and Rio Salado Community College.
Yet for unexplained reasons, the section on cost savings, “compared the overall costs of online courses with average costs at four of the institutions in the study” and “found that the savings for online courses ranged from … 3% to 50%…” To clarify, the report found cost savings at just four of the six schools it hand-picked to study. Interestingly, ASU was not one of the institutions it included in its own report with regard to calculating cost savings.
Nonetheless, that ASU found it was less expensive to offer online classes at four of six schools is probably noteworthy. Those lower costs are possible, the report says, in part because schools can save money on building costs for new students. That is true but, as others have cited, only if the school is already at maximum on-campus capacity where adding students would necessitate adding more space. Still, in those cases, online offerings would save building and physical maintenance costs.
But mostly, ASU says, the savings in online classes are found by having larger classes with less experienced, cheaper adjunct and part-time faculty.
Quoting the study, “Online courses have higher ratios of students to instructors.” And, even though it did not calculate or share any overall savings at ASU, the report did clearly note the class size disparity there. “At ASU,” the report reads, “section sizes for online courses are significantly larger than those for on-campus courses: lower division online undergraduate courses are about twice the size of lower division face-to-face courses.” Upper division online classes at ASU are about 50% larger than on-campus ones, according to the report.
And from the study again, “Some universities and community colleges among our case study institutions use more adjunct or part time faculty – who tend to be less costly to hire than tenure-track faculty – … to teach online courses.”
At one “major university” (the report does not say which), adjunct professors teach 85% of online courses compared with 70% of those on campus. For upper division classes, the report found, about 60% of campus classes were taught by adjuncts; online classes were taught by the “less costly” teachers 90% of the time.
Having more students per class learning from less costly, less experienced teachers is sure to be less expensive. The ASU report calls such decisions a “tradeoff” and says, “In making these tradeoffs, most universities may be investing in instructional quality in other ways…” Although the report offers little evidence that they are, it’s true that they may be. Or maybe not.
Most glaring in the ASU report, though, is that, as Johann Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University told Inside Higher Ed, “…if, as the report concludes, much of the savings come by relying on contingent faculty to teach larger classes. These savings have nothing to do with technology.”
That most of the advertised savings from online classes aren’t necessarily linked to being online is a remarkable thing to find in a report from a national leader in online learning in a report about online learning.
ASU did not return phone calls seeking comment on the study.