On Wednesday, the University of California Board of Regents will be deciding whether to add online courses in place of in-person ones. Credits for online classes would cost the same as other ones, but would be less expensive for the university and add flexibility. It’s a simple market-based decision. Because demand doesn’t change, the universities find it OK to keep any added revenue, rather than pass along savings to the consumer (read: poor college student). Chad Aldeman calls it “balancing budgets off the backs of students.” When your current practices have led you to near-bankruptcy, I suppose you can’t be blamed for trying to cut costs. After all, Berkeley’s tuition and fees will be around $12,000/year even after close to a 40% hike this year. Compared to the Carnegie Mellon (ranked 22 in US News, right after Berkeley) whose tuition and fees will be over $40,000, that doesn’t seem so bad. Factor in the UCs’ returns on investment and you get pretty good bang for your buck. In fact, Berkeley tops out as the highest annualized net ROI percentage of any school with over $1.2 million return. It’s also the highest of any public school (surprise, surprise).
Perhaps we shouldn’t be generalizing based on Berkeley, though. All UCs charge the same, so even though you might be getting $1.22 million net ROI over 30 years from Berkeley, you’re only getting $423,000 if you attend UC Santa Cruz (Berkeley’s 90% graduation rate and Santa Cruz’s 72% are factored into those numbers). Still, the UC’s in general do give pretty good bang for your buck compared to other schools. But how do we know what the online courses will bring? We don’t, really. Perhaps the courses will go off without a hitch and perfectly mimic their other available options. Students will get the same product for their dollars. This is a new program, though, and new programs almost inevitably have problems. I don’t have an issue with tested programs costing the same as one another. They regents should consider any new online courses to be pilots, though. The students who enroll in them are guinea pigs. There is risk involved in partaking in these classes. Students should not have to bear that risk alone, though. A portion of the initial savings should be given to those who enroll in these classes initially. If students and professors find that the online versions are just as effective, then keep the classes and charge the same as others. It’s not ethical to do otherwise.