Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Online Instruction, Budget Transparency, and the Cost of Education

For the last ten years, UC-AFT has been fighting a battle with the University of California over budget transparency. One of our main concerns has been how much it actually costs to educate each individual undergraduate student and how much funding does each student generate in state and tuition dollars. So far the Office of the President has refused to make these calculations because they do not think you can or should separate teaching from research and administration, and even though the new rebenching funding model does try to account for the different costs structures related to undergraduate vs, graduate vs. professional education, the university still insists that it would be too costly and time-consuming to really determine the cost of educating different types of students. However, the push for online education should motivate UCOP to change its strategy because the Regents and the state are under the false impression that distance education can solve the university’s fiscal problems.

The main reason why the Regents and the governor are misguided is because they do not know that the highly-impacted, lower-division courses that UC wants to move online may be the only thing that really generates a profit for the university. For example, in looking at my first- and second-year students’ transcripts at UCLA, I calculated the average, yearly direct instructional cost for a typical lower-division undergraduate student. I found that since students in their first two years at UCLA tend to take 8 large courses (averaging 200 students) and 2 small classes (averaging 25 students) each year, and half of these courses are taught by lecturers, the total direct instructional cost per year is $1,950 (an if we add 20% for benefits, it costs $2,340). (UC brings in $16,000 per undergrad student in combined tuition and state funds).

Here is how I made this calculation: since the average full-time lecturer salary is currently $60,000 and the full load is 8 courses, each of the courses cost $7,500. If a lower-division student takes four large lecture classes (averaging 200 students) with a lecturer, the cost per student for each course is $37.50. In the case of senate faculty teaching lower-division lecture classes making $100,000 for four courses a year, the cost for the four large lecture classes is $500 per student. If we then do the same calculation for small classes of 25 students, the cost for a course taught by a lecturer is $300 and the course taught by a senate faculty member is $1,000.

One can argue with this methodology, but what should be absolutely clear is that it is virtually impossible for the online program to deliver education for less money. Although the Regents and the Governor bemoan the fact that universities have failed to follow other “industries” by reducing costs through technology, what they do not see is that costs have been reduced by the use of large classes and non-tenured faculty. However, UCOP does not want to make this argument because its entire budgetary structure is based on half-truths and abstract calculations.

Making matters worse is the fact that the UC has already spent a lot of money on the online pilot program, and studies have shown that universities constantly under-estimate the real costs of distance education. For example, in his article “The Costs and Costing of Online Learning,”, Greville Rumble looks at the actual costs of using online courses at research universities. His main finding is that previous research on this topic failed to take into account all of the related expenses: “One of the problems with many of the studies now available is that they report the broad results, not the detail. It is therefore difficult to know what has been included and what excluded, and so whether the costings undertaken are comprehensive. Experience suggests, however, that all figures need to be treated with care. What does seem clear is that the costs of developing a course are being pushed up—and significantly so whenever media are used in a sophisticated way. If so, and if cost efficiency is an important consideration, then savings may need to be looked for in delivery.” Rumble here argues that one of the main cost drivers in online courses is the development of the class material.

In fact, his research shows that if universities want to produce a high-quality educational experience, they have to spend a great deal of money: “The high costs of developing internet courses are confirmed by Saba, who suggests that commercial software companies developing courses for online instruction or publishers are spending at least $500,000 to fully develop a multimedia course.” It is important to note that when universities present the cost of new online programs, they usually do not account for the initial costs of course development.

Rumble also believes that although these new programs are often used to save labor costs and faculty time, the opposite often happens: “A high proportion of the costs of developing materials is labor costs. All the research shows that it takes more academic time to develop media that will occupy a student for one hour, than it takes to develop a one-hour lecture—although how much more time is difficult to quantify. Sparkes reckoned that it took from 2 to 10 hours to prepare a lecture, from 1 to 10 hours to prepare a small group session, and from 3 to 10 hours to prepare a video-tape lecture; however, it took at least 50 to 100 academic hours to prepare a teaching text, 100 hours to prepare a television broadcast, 200 hours to develop computer-aided learning, and 300 hours to develop interactive materials—to which in all cases one needed to add the time of technical support staff.” There are thus a lot of hidden costs involved in developing online courses, and these expenses rarely show up in presentations on the cost-effectiveness of computer-mediated education.

Universities also sometimes underestimate the expenses related to delivering online courses: “In general none of the studies undertaken to date adequately factor in the costs of overheads. Although, the costs of putting in equipment directly associated with the projects (e.g., servers) are usually taken into account, as are the costs of software licenses, college operating budgets do not usually reflect the full costs of maintaining networked services.” It turns out that it is very hard to calculate the total cost of software licenses, network maintenance, and equipment for online programs, so universities simply make a guess and present it as a fact.

Furthermore, universities have a hard time predicting the number of staff and administrators they will need for a new online program: “Much depends on the context—the time spent agreeing that a group of enthusiasts can develop a project will be very different to that required to change an institution’s direction. Indeed, developing an IT [information technology] strategy is likely to be expensive.” One thing that we can be sure of is that the use of online courses drives up the cost of administration and staff while further squeezing instructional budgets. I hope to make this argument to the Regents and Governor Brown to show them the folly of the online fiscal panacea.


  1. Your estimate seems to only include compensation costs of the primary lecturer. What about TAs and graders? What about support staff? What about the cost of building and maintaining classroom facilities?

    1. My central argument is that instructional costs have been driven down by the reliance on non-tenure-track faculty and large lecture classes. In the past, I have also included the cost of TAs, but it is hard to find stats on this - I know at UCLA, TAs often teach 2 sections of 20 students for $4,000 each quarter, so this adds an extra $100 per student for large classes. It would be great if someone could provide more stats on this. In regards to cost of building and maintaining classrooms, online classes require expensive equipment, facilities, staffing, maintenance, and they also need some type of grader or person to supply feed back.

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  2. The fact of the matter is that students are paying a premium above the cost of instruction for the prestige of attending UC. The state used to cover this premium, and now it's being shifted over to the students. The benefit to the students is that they get to attend a university with big-name professors and possibly be taught by some of them. If the state doesn't cover the cost of research and student tuition doesn't cover the cost of research, then the prestige of UC goes away.

    Prestige may be worthwhile or not worthwhile, but if students and parents really only wanted to pay no more than the cost of instruction, then there are cheaper (and less prestigious) options out there.

  3. The cost of developing traditional courses can also be fairly high. I've spent about 400–500 hours developing a new lab course, even before preparing any of the lab handouts or ordering the parts for the students, which will take another 100 hours (full time over winter break). At my current salary, that is a development cost of about $30000 (more if you count benefits). Delivering the course to 20 students will cost another $30000-40000, for a cost of round $3500/student. Of course, in future years, the class size will double, the development costs will have been amortized, and we may even alternate years between Senate faculty and a lecturer, reducing the cost to about $1000/student, as you estimate for somewhat smaller classes.

    Incidentally, if you are interested in what goes into designing an engineering lab course, I've been making notes on the course design at http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/circuits-course-table-of-contents/
    I'm up to 86 blog posts (about 200 pages) of notes for the course design—and I still haven't started writing up the web pages or course handouts.

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