Can Online Learning Bend the Cost Curve of Higher Education?

By Elizabeth Blume

A new report on whether online learning offerings can lead to lower tuition prices was recently released by Harvard University. The report finds that while there is some evidence that online learning can reduce college costs, its impact on education quality remains uncertain.

Some of the other key findings of this report are as follows:

  • In 2013, 11.1 percent of all U.S. undergraduate, degree-seeking students were enrolled in fully online programs.
    • “Online only” programs are largely available from for-profit institutions and less-selective public institutions.
    • Students enrolled online full-time are older, have lower levels of parental education, are more likely to be single parents and are more likely to work full-time.
    • For-profit institutions enroll more than 50 percent of their students in fully online programs, non-selective two- and four-year public colleges enroll 8.5 percent of their students fully online and selective institutions enroll only 1.3 percent of their students in online programs full-time.
  • Overall, both public and private sector institutions with large numbers of online students charge lower prices:
    • Every 10 percent increase in the share of students taking all courses online is associated with a decline in tuition of 1.4 – 1.5 percent.
  • From 2006 to 2013, the median price of a full-time undergraduate online education declined by 34 percent, compared to an 8 percent drop in the price of a traditional education at a large for-profit or non-profit institutions and a 9.2 percent increase at non-selective four-year public institutions.
  • While these results are promising, there is current research indicating that online programs have a negative impact on the quality of education, i.e., online students learn less than students attending classes in person.
    • The study also found that employers are less likely to contact otherwise-identical fictitious job applicants when they have business degrees from online for-profit institutions as compared to degrees from non-selective public institutions.