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Will MOOCs Lower College Costs? Maybe

written by: •edited by: Carly Stockwell•updated: 11/11/2013

The ever-rising cost of college weighs on the minds of students, parents and college administrators alike. Will the advent of some new free or low-cost forms of education help in lowering the overall costs of education? Although it is too soon to tell, some college officials say it is not likely.

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    Will MOOCs and Online Classes Lower the Cost of College Tuition? As the cost of a college education continues to increase, institutions nationwide struggle to find a balance between cutting costs while maintaining a quality degree programs. Unfortunately, the weakened economy has forced many adults to forego a college in lieu of working full-time.

    But developing learning programs such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) wants to give traditional learning institutions a run for their money. Some feel this type of learning forces colleges to lower their costs to attract students, while others believe you can never replace a typical college experience.

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    The Changing Face of Higher Education

    As times changed, many doors opened for everyone who wanted the chance at earning a higher education degree. However, those opportunities did not come in the form of reduced college costs. Instead the opportunity to go to college and pay the ever-rising tuition prices was made available through student loans, grants, financial aid and scholarships.

    In the past few years, however, college costs have skyrocketed, growing far past the rate of inflation. Every rising costs combined with a failing ecnomy left students unable to receive the financial help they needed. Instead, they found themselves working full-time, trying to balance difficult work and school schedules, and only half of the students who were working toward a degree actually received one.1 Recent college graduates also had a hard time paying off their loans, causing many to question the value of their degree in the first place.

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    Could Online Classes be a Solution?

    As technology took off, more colleges and universities started offering class selections online; however, they were only an extension of the degreed programs already being offered. The same enrollment, registration and tuition requirements must still be met.

    Then came MOOCs and the opportunity for students to take free or drastically reduced online classes sponsored by some of the most elite universities in the United States. If implemented correctly, these courses may be able to bring down the cost of a college education. MOOCs began as non-credit courses, but sometimes, students can earn a certificate of completion from the school in which they are attending online.

    The University of Maryland University College is a good example. This institution is the first of its kind to award transfer credit to those who took and proved they learned from certain MOOCs. The school tracked student progress with the hopes of providing a less-expensive alternative way of earning a college degree. A typical three-credit course at this college in 2013 might cost several thousand dollars, but as a MOOC, may only be around $200.2

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    Consensus Shows That MOOCs Won't Lower Tuition Costs

    Although the cost of getting an online education may be cheaper than attending classes on-campus, there is still not much proof that they will actually help lower tuition costs all-around. In many cases, it is still to early to determine if college tuition costs will decrease because of MOOCs. However, although traditional colleges and universities are offering more online courses, the cost of tuition is still increasing. This is because the cost to the university to produce the course is not offset by the people taking it. A 2013 Gallup survey indicates that only 2 percent of U.S. college presidents agree that MOOCs will help their schools' financial struggles.3

    The reason? Though many believe that it is cheaper to produce an online course than a traditional face-to-face class, the bottom line is in the long run; all quality courses come with a shelf life that cuts into those savings. What seems like a cost-savings in the short-term, may be a moot point when the course needs to be retooled or recreated.4

    Finally, although online classes may not need as many instructors as traditional classroom courses, there is the unseen cost of people needed to design, support, deliver, develop and sustain the technology needed to provide the course. This does not include the price of using licensed software, obtaining rights to intellectual properties and faculty training.

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    Possible Answer to Lower Costs: Competency-Based Learning

    A more promising alternative may be more forms of degree programs that allow for some sort of compentancy based learning. This would allow students to be awarded degrees based on what they have learned from taking courses (free or otherwise) as opposed to earning credit hours, which can be much more expensive. This type of learning allows students to master content at their own pace for free.

    This is not only a savings for the students who can earn a degree in a much-shorter time frame, but brick-and-mortar colleges may be forced to lower their costs just to compete. Students won't have to travel to campus for a class they can master online. In the end, most believe MOOCs will be most beneficial if they continue to offer high-quality classes and help to improve the quality of learning.


  • 1: "What Can MOOCs Do for American Higher Education?"
  • 2: "Colleges Offer Credit for Massive Online Open Courses"
  • 3, 4: "Is Online Education Saving Money for College and Universities?"