Electronic tuition rates overcome distance learning barrier

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It is not clear which of the policy changes described here are part of the SREB's new tuition initiative, to be introduced in the future, and which are already being practiced. A little structural clarification will help orient the reader better. To put it as critic ZZ did: "The author appears to promote a solution that a number of universities are already adopting.  Is s/he promoting: (1) the wholesale adoption of this policy and/or (2) a rationalization of the policy for purposes of consistency?"

Traditional residence-based tuition is one of the most significant barriers to distance learning. In the electronic era, when learning is available anytime and anyplace, traditional tuition policies reduce opportunities for potential students and limit institutions' access to new markets. The Southern Regional Education Board, the nation’s oldest compact for education, has targeted this problem and is promoting a new policy to replace residence-based tuition.

In four years, the Southern Regional Education Board's Electronic Campus has become one of the nation’s most successful marketplaces of distance-learning courses. Starting with 104 courses, the Electronic Campus now has more than 4,000 undergraduate and graduate courses and over 175 degree programs. These accredited courses and programs are offered by 325 colleges and universities in the 16-state SREB region.

Since the beginning of the Electronic Campus, education and government officials—and, most importantly, students—have raised questions about out-of-state tuition for distance-learning students. The traditional tuition and fee policies often mean that a non-resident taking a course electronically pays three times more than an in-state resident.

Tuition rates for Electronic Campus courses demonstrate the magnitude of the problem. The average in-state rate for a lower-level course is $133. The average out-of-state rate is $454—more than triple the in-state amount. For upper-level courses, the in-state average is $338 and the out-of-state average is $838. There is a similar disparity between average costs for graduate courses: $408 for in-state students and $1,048 for out-of-state students. Quite simply, this prevents many students from seeking an education through distance learning.

Working with SREB's distance learning policy laboratory, many of the 16 states in the region have taken steps to deal with this problem. Some states have established new policies for more flexible pricing, and some have given institutions more flexibility to assess tuition and fees. One promising solution is a new policy approach that SREB is promoting: the development of electronic tuition rates. This means universal, single rates for distance-learning courses. Individual institutions would establish the rate for distance-learning courses, initially for those courses in the Electronic Campus.

Of the distance-learning courses that are already offered at a universal rate, most are through universities' continuing education programsnot through the Electronic Campus. Continuing education programs are not required to charge in-state and out-of-state tuition. This is a helpful approach, but it applies only to a limited number and variety of courses.

Several state initiatives are valuable first steps in eliminating the barriers created by out-of-state tuition charges: [Critic ZZ: Are these first steps part of, or a result of, the "new policy approach" mentioned above?]

Each of these efforts is a step toward eliminating the tuition barrier and creating a more rational pricing system. The distance learning policy laboratory’s goal is to develop a broader, more defined policy to link these initiatives and actions. The proposed approach should build on the traditional SREB approach of sharing and reciprocity among states and should provide a more consistent policy for SREB states.

The electronic tuition rates, which are a more appropriate tuition model for e-courses than traditional rates, will serve as a catalyst for better access and educational opportunities. They will also help SREB colleges and universities become national leaders in distance learning. Out-of-state tuition charges for distance-learning courses will not survive in this electronic era. It is only a matter of time before a change takes place, and SREB states can capitalize on their leadership in distance learning by influencing the direction of this change. [Critic ZZ: "The writer has pointed out above that change is already taking place: a number of states are already dropping the dual tuition structure." Again, this is due to the lack of clarity in the article over which policies belong to which initiative.]

The electronic tuition rates will benefit students, states and colleges and universities.

For students, the rates will:

For colleges and universities, the rates will:

For SREB states, the rates will:

The need for high-quality, convenient and affordable higher education increases as the South continues its economic growth. The Southern Regional Education Board believes that distance learning—made more accessible by electronic tuition rates—is a major step toward meeting that need.