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MSU adjusts tuition to meet online class demand

Higher education leaders say the move is a sign of the times

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As local colleges pivoted in 2020 to more online instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic, several have made tuition adjustments to reflect the modern teaching model.

The Missouri State University Board of Governors last month approved a blended tuition rate that will apply to all in-state, undergraduate students regardless if classes are seated or online. The $257 per credit hour goes into effect this fall. MSU’s current tuition structure is $228 for seated classes and $299 for online classes.

MSU President Clif Smart said the decision was a direct response to the pandemic. University officials began talking with the board about the concept last summer – a conversation that eventually included student advisory groups. Most students were not in favor of a tuition model that charges more for online courses, he said.

“We had significant support from the students for this change,” Smart said. “It didn’t make as much sense anymore to have two pricing models.”

By February, a near full years’ worth of data was available to determine the blended credit hour price, he said. It was determined $257 per credit hour was the break-even point.

“It is designed to be revenue neutral. … That’s why a large majority of students have embraced this,” he said. “It’s not a cash grab for the university. It’s really just creating a different framework that’s much more transparent. Students can pick the kind of modality they like without worrying what the price is.”

Smart said if the new blended tuition rate was used this academic year, MSU would have netted $87,605,000 – a $25,000 decrease. Springfield campus enrollment is over 24,000 and around 26,000 systemwide, according to officials.

In the fall, school officials expect courses combining seated and online learning will represent 25%-30% of MSU classes.

Seated classes made up about 80% of classes in fall 2019, whereas Smart said the next semester should be an even balance between seated, online and hybrid classes.

Earlier adopter
Ozarks Technical Community College officials began considering a change of its online course fee pre-COVID.

In April 2020, OTC’s Board of Trustees voted to eliminate the $65 fee for each course online students attend. To make up for the investment required to offer online education, the board raised the student technology fee paid by all students to $19 per credit hour, up from $8. The changes went into effect June 1, 2020.

“We made the decision to do it because online, when we first started, was hugely expensive to ramp up,” OTC Chancellor Hal Higdon said, declining to disclose figures. “We had to pay faculty to develop curriculum, we had to buy equipment, etc. We made the decision pre-COVID to do that because more and more of our students were taking courses that were hybrid, partially seated and partially online.”

OTC spokesperson Mark Miller said students taking online classes are up considerably at the college – by more than 40% in each of the past two semesters, compared with the year prior. Students in online classes have actually outpaced those taking in-person classes on the Springfield campus for the first time ever the past two semesters, he said.

In fall 2020, OTC’s online enrollment was 6,471, while the Springfield in-person total was 6,010, according to Miller. The spring 2021 semester enrollment was 6,207 online and 5,345 in Springfield.

“We knew we would be up because of the COVID situation, but people were more willing to move online than I thought they would,” Higdon said, noting seated classes have remained an option during the pandemic. “I thought they might just stop and wait. Most of them decided not to do that.”

Not all local higher ed schools are transitioning online.

Drury University’s traditional undergraduate school doesn’t hold any online classes and remained in-person during the past academic year, said spokesperson Mike Brothers. However, Drury GO, its evening and online programs largely aimed at nontraditional students, moved last year to a level tuition rate of $320 per credit hour. The prior Drury GO per credit hour tuition was $262 seated and $320 online.

“We made this change because we believe it’s both more fair and easier for students to understand, as it makes it easier for them to chart their course, financially speaking,” Brothers said via email.

Navigating challenges
At Evangel University, the per credit hour cost for undergraduate adult and online tuition will increase in the fall 2021 semester to $315 from $285, said Lisa Tyson, dean of the college of adult and graduate studies.

She said the pandemic resulted in 720 courses at Evangel that were either transitioned last spring to online instruction or significantly adjusted to allow students to continue learning and complete the course requirements.

“It helped us to navigate the challenges in the last year so much better,” she said of offering online programming. “It allows you to be a lot more innovative and quick to serve students when you have a lot of options for them.”

In the summer, Evangel offers a slate of online courses for traditional students, Tyson said, so they can hold a full-time job and still take classes. Those include general education requirements, such as science, government, literature and personal finance.

OTC’s Higdon said student enrollment in the summer is around 96% online at the college. Online education at OTC has been growing consistently for years, he said, adding the school offers hybrid nursing and dental programs.

“That’s one reason we were able to pivot so well. We were already headed down this path anyway,” he said. “(The pandemic) just put us in a time machine and kicked us ahead five years.”

Tyson said online course offerings are here to stay but doesn’t ever foresee an end to seated classes.

“There’s always going to be a demand for in-person learning,” she said. “They want that social part.”

While the new blended tuition rate at MSU is months away from going into effect, Smart believes even more colleges and universities will follow suit as the online and seated class line continues to blur.

“We like to think we’re a leader in public higher education in Missouri,” he said, noting there are at least four undisclosed universities tracking MSU’s new tuition plan. “If we’re successful in this strategy, I think others will follow us.”

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