Letter to the Editor: Cal State Online
April 5, 2012
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Research shows that most college professors view online teaching as an innovative way to improve access to college for students who would otherwise not have access. Students who live in rural areas, have limited physical mobility, or have work hours that interfere with their ability to attend class, are examples of students who can benefit from online courses and/or degree programs. However, online degree programs do have their drawbacks. For example, many online degree programs are offered through a private for-profit or not-for-profit provider. University of Phoenix is probably the best known example of a for-profit program and Western Governors University is an example of a private, not-for-profit provider. While tuition costs and graduation rates vary widely among private providers of online degree programs, we do know that typical tuition costs are much higher and graduation rates tend to be much lower on average than that of “traditional” state universities. For example, findings from a recent Education Trust study reported in the NY Times revealed that the graduation rate for first time BA degree students at the University of Phoenix is 22%. This compares to a similar rate of 23% for Western Governors University. We understand that state universities find themselves in an economic bind as support for the public sector shrinks. We understand that administrators are forced to generate new revenue streams that increasingly include forming private/public partnerships through initiatives such as Cal State Online. However, a downside of the privatization of public education can take the form of paying more for a poorer quality “product.” The cost and quality of Cal State Online degree programs remains to be seen, but students should by savvy consumers who attend to several concerns when making choices about their educational pursuits. Students considering a fully online degree through Cal State Online or through any other online provider might want to think about the following points and ask the following questions:
1. First, be aware that Cal State Online is not the same as Cal State University as you currently know it. This holds for degree programs currently offered partly or fully online.
2. At this point the word is that Cal State Online will be offered through Continuing Education. (Continuing Education does not receive state funding: It is considered to be a self-supporting entity connected to CSU). It is not clear if the cost of Cal State Online will be equal to current degrees and/or courses offered through Continuing Education or if tuition will be closer to the going rate for degrees offered through private online universities. Whichever form Cal State Online takes, be aware that tuition costs are higher through both Continuing Education and through private online degree programs. So when inquiring about a Cal State Online degree be sure to ask:
3. What will be the full tuition cost for a degree earned through Cal State Online?
4. Is the same degree offered at a lower cost through CSUEB stateside?
5. Will my courses be taught by faculty with terminal degrees in their area of study? (For CSUEB, this typically means that your instructors have a PhD, and in a few cases a Masters Degree).
6. Will the course be taught by a facilitator or mentor? (A facilitator or mentor is often someone who does not have a graduate degree. Their job often involves loading a course online, grading assignments and exams, and providing you with links to tutorials).
7. In line with #6, ask how much online contact you will have with the instructor. Research reports produced by the National Education Association show that students give higher ratings to and are more likely to complete online courses that have a high level of student/instructor engagement.
8. Course caps (the maximum number of students allowed to enroll in a class) impact the level of student/instructor engagement. Thus, you will want to be aware of the course cap. High caps may be acceptable for some courses, but not for all. Be aware of the course caps for the full range of courses required for your online degree.
9. Will your transcripts and degree read California State University or California State University Online? Be aware that, while research findings show some improvement in employer attitudes toward online degrees, many employers still rank degrees earned from private online universities lower than degrees earned from state universities (e.g., CSU, UC), private liberal arts colleges (e.g., Mills College), and private Research I universities (e.g., Stanford University).
As we move forward, ask yourself if it is prudent for CSU to invest in Cal State Online. Will the benefit to the people of the state of California outweigh the cost? Thus far, the Chancellor’s Office of the CSU took $50,000 from each of the 23 campuses (a total of $1,150,000) as start-up funds for Cal State Online. We do not know who will enroll in Cal State Online, but many students will likely not be California residents. The mission of the CSU primarily involves service to the state of California. For the state of California, the primary benefits of Cal State Online would be: 1) service to California students who cannot enroll in “traditional” CSU, and 2) profits made from Cal State Online. However, given the low graduation rates of online universities, it is not clear that Cal State Online will be profitable, and the university has not clearly stated that any profits that are made would be used to benefit traditional CSU students.