On-ground vs. Online Schools: The Quest for Online Students

On-ground vs. Online Schools: The Battle for Online Students

Students interested in online learning are highly sought after by both traditional institutions and online (for-profit) institutions. Cal State Online is one of the latest initiatives developed by a traditional school and it has a potential to attract online students. California State University will soon launch a new Internet portal that will help accomplish the goal of increasing the number of new students. It is also possible that this program could join the ranks of other traditional schools that have offered online degrees on a nationwide and global basis. If you’ve made a decision that an online degree program is the best fit for your career needs and/or your lifestyle, you have many schools to choose from. In the quest for new online students, would one of these institutions have an advantage? Would you consider both?

Background Information

Inside Higher Ed recently published Cal State’s Online Plan and it provided details about the new portal that is presently under development. The portal will provide access to all of the online courses offered by California State University throughout the 23 statewide campuses, with a goal of increasing “capacity at California State, where massive budget cuts have coincided with a rising demand for higher ed degrees.” It will be first introduced this fall as a beta test and then fully implemented by spring of 2013. This is an indicator that the present plans are focused on the current needs of its campus locations.

There is a potential for CSU to serve a much larger student population. Here’s why – California State University has over 400,000 students, 44,000 faculty and staff, and is considered the largest educational system in the United States. Cal State’s Online Plan has garnered attention because it may “serve as a test of whether a massive public higher ed system under extreme financial duress can use online education to expand access.” CSU hopes to replicate the success of Penn State University and University of Massachusetts, which are offering online programs nationwide.

When Traditional Schools Go Online

If you take an online course from a traditional school, will those classes have the same potential learning achievement as the on-ground campus classes?

To answer the question for CSU, I reviewed the Open Letter to the CSU re: Cal State Online. It provides a summary of the Cal State Online initiative and there are ten guiding principles developed to align the online program with the school’s mission and includes the following:
1. World class student services – Online student services will reflect best practices and services will include academic advising, career services, financial aid, technical support
2. Quality of courses – online courses will meet or exceed the quality standards of CSU face-to-face courses

Cal State Online hopes to achieve the same success as Penn State University and the University of Massachusetts. Penn State has been an institution of higher education over 150 years and through its online program there are courses offered in all 50 states.  A review of the Penn State World Campus website finds the following: “Our online courses are the same courses that we offer on campus. Therefore, your diploma will look no different from the one earned by students on our physical campus. It will not differentiate the method of delivery or state that your degree was earned online.”

The University of Massachusetts describes its school as having “an internationally recognized faculty, including winners of the world’s most prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, National Book Award for Poetry, and the Draper Award in Engineering,” along with an alumni network that includes “successful, highly respected industry leaders, scientists, authors, astronauts, hi-tech entrepreneurs and entertainers.” UMassOnline offers over 1500 courses and the website states that “an online degree from the University of Massachusetts will be granted from the University of Massachusetts, and will not contain any references to “˜online’ on the diploma or transcript. An online degree from UMassOnline is the same degree earned from the University of Massachusetts.”

If Cal State Online launches the new Internet portal and aligns its online degree programs with the same goals as Penn State World Campus and UMassOnline, it will rely upon its long-standing academic reputation as a selling point, while de-emphasizing the format of the courses that were taken. This could provide an edge over schools that operate solely online, if you equate quality with longevity and tradition. It could also become a disadvantage, if instead you view traditional schools as being outdated. Online schools, especially for-profit schools, emphasize the relevance of the courses offered to real-world settings, issues, and topics – with courses taught by instructors who are often working in a field related to the subject matter.

Financial Considerations

California State University’s purpose statement talks about more than the education students acquire, it addresses the economic needs of students and the state: “The economic impact of the California State University is unparalleled. The CSU provides jobs, prepares the future workforce, and creates innovative products and services for the state that will build and sustain its economy. Moreover, the research undertaken by the CSU’s faculty and staff is solving critical problems for California.” This is an extremely important issue given that the cost of tuition and student loan debt are factors every student must consider. Students need to put their education to work, which also means there must be jobs available for them.

Cal State’s Online Plan may have an advantage over online schools because of its tuition, which may be less than for-profit schools. From the information presently available, it is likely that Cal State Online will offer the same yearly tuition rates as CSU. CSU tuition for undergraduate students is $3,174 to $5,472 per year depending upon the number of credit hours enrolled, and a range of $3,906 to $6,738 for graduate students. At present the tuition is based upon state residency, which will need to be addressed if the online courses are marketed to a national or global prospective student base.

It will be interesting to view the final product once it’s launched, to see if Cal State Online becomes a strong competitor for online students similar to Penn State or UMassOnline. As you research your degree options, consider more than the cost of the program. Ask questions about services offered for online students, faculty who teach the courses, course materials, and the potential learning achievements and career options.

Would you consider a traditional school with an online degree program as a possibility for your academic goals? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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