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Digital education should have a price advantage

Published: November 8, 2013
Section: Editorials


This spring semester marks a milestone in Brandeis’s debut on the 21st century online education scene. Higher education is unique among American industries in that digital technology has left long established practices and mentalities largely unscathed. But the times are changing and Brandeis, as well as other elite Universities, have to recognize that ultimately IT is going to transform everything we thought we knew about education.

Semester Online is Brandeis’s answer to web based education. The service is composed of a growing consortium of top tier Universities which each contribute several courses that any of their students can take. Designed and hosted by the for-profit 2U venture startup, the product incorporates several promising elements like live video discussions between students and professors and provisions for active engagement.

It is an interesting approach to online education. Unlike many other offerings, Semester Online does not attempt to make education more scalable or less labor intensive for professors. It prides itself on its exclusivity; 2U refuses to work with institutions which are not “top tier,” and has a rigorous application process for students from schools not affiliated with the program.

We would hope that 2U would take into account the fundamental nature of the digital revolution when structuring its foray into the online sphere. In some ways, it does, like its whole hearted embrace of collaboration between institutions. In other ways, it does not. For example, digital technology generally makes things cheaper. Semester Online does not make things cheaper. In fact, each class on offer currently costs $4,200 to students not attending an affiliated school.

A student taking five classes on campus paying the traditional $21,000 per semester would also be paying the same $4,200 per class. However, a Semester Online class only counts for three credit hours, as opposed to the traditional four of a typical on campus class. This means that students enrolled in Semester Online would pay $350 more per credit than they would were they enrolled at Brandeis, one of the most expensive schools in America.

While Brandeis students can participate in Semester Online without incurring additional fees during a Spring or Fall semester, summer students will have to pay the full price. Brandeis is already one of the priciest Universities in the world, but Semester Online, an organization which claims to embrace the digital revolution, manages to exceed our costs on a per credit basis. Add to this the fact that online offerings from other schools are likely not to count towards Brandeis major and minor requirements, and you have a highly inequitable service.

Administrators have to realize that when they gouge students, students resent the University for it. Take for instance the fact that a student attending a $10,000 study abroad program must pay the University the full cost of on campus tuition in order to receive credit. Take for instance the fact that students earning more than 22 credits in a semester pay additional fees while students taking 12 credits pay regular tuition. We see direct parallels to this opportunist pricing culture in the fee strategy presented by Semester Online.