Online fee spent in variety of ways

We’ve all heard the commercials: ‘Take classes in the comfort of your own home in your pajamas, on your own schedule.”

The offering of online classes appeals to many students who have increasingly hectic schedules juggling classes, work and extra-curricular activities. Students find online classes offer more flexibility to an already-full schedule.

But with greater flexibility comes a greater price.

Online classes typically cost more to take than in-classroom classes.  At MSUM, students are charged an additional $55 per credit in any class they take online. At a private college, the prices may be as much as three times higher than MSUM’s. Where do those fees go?

Jean Hollaar, the associate vice-president of finance and administration, explains that the fees charged for online classes are assessed for the extra technology and support that online classes require. They pay for the hosting and running of Desire 2 Learn, MnSCU’s online class website, as well as paying the staff that keep the website running and assist professors who need help getting their classes online.

An advantage to those students who take only online classes is that they are not charged the student activity fees that on-campus students are charged. The student activity fee is also charged on a per-credit basis up to 11 credits, Hollaar said.

“After 11 credits, the student is assessed a banded fee,” Hollaar said. “They are charged $3,449.00 for 12-19 credits.”

According to the business office website, the difference in charges from 11 credits, which costs $2,446.73, to the $3,449.00 tag on the banded 12-19 credit price is $1002.27, while a single credit costs $224.43. The online fees are assessed as an additional charge per the amount of credits taken no matter how many credits of online classes a student takes.

“Part of that $55 fee goes to the MnSCU system also, as an assessment fee,” Hollaar said. “So really, $50.50 stays on campus and $4.50 of each online credit fee goes to MnSCU.”

During the last fiscal year, students at MSUM took 27,938 online credits. Charged at $55 per credit, the online charges to students totaled over $1.5 million, but total expenses, including salaries, software fees, travel and indirect support total only a little over $1 million.

Denise Gorsline, vice president of academic planning, said that the money in the online account, which comes from the online class fee, can only be used for online-class related expenses. Those expenses include programming, training and support to faculty who are developing and maintaining online classes.

“I’ve heard Jean Hollaar refer to it as fenced-in funds, meaning the money can only be spent on specific things,” Gorsline said.

Gorsline is happy to see students asking about fees and where their money goes. She said the excess of around $500,000 that the online account has right now should be seen as a temporary condition and should be looked at as a good thing.

The school is looking into providing more online classes and hiring an online director to assess and oversee all online classes.

“If you think about it like it is the IT Department, there are things that you don’t have to buy every year, like new computers,” Gorsline said. “But in year four, they need that money they saved for the last four years to go toward a large expense. That is where the online classes are heading right now.”

Over the summer, a large group of professors were sent to a D2L conference. The money used to pay for the conference came from the online class fee account.

In addition to sending professors to the D2L conference, the online fees also went to supporting 40-50 professors in putting their classes online or make their online classes ADA compliant for this year.

Gorsline said that, from an academic standpoint, a lot more goes into creating online classes than what meets the eye. If an online class has video in it, no matter if it is a video recorded by the professor or a link to another video, ADA standards require that video have closed captioning or a transcription needs to be provided.

Also, students who are visually impaired who use screen readers need all documents in a specific format or the document cannot be read by the screen reader. This, and many other ADA compliancy issues are handled by professors and support staff.

“Any time a professor has an issue with putting a class online, whether it is embedding videos or getting items uploaded and linked, the staff that is trained in working with our online programs are paid from the online tuition fee fund,” Gorsline said.

She said that when the programs are done well, students don’t realize how much behind-the-scenes work goes into creating the classes.

One of the big expenses that the excess money will be used for is hiring a director to oversee the online classes.

Gorsline said that the university is in the very early stages of the process right now. Human resources is completing a compensation evaluation on a local level, and then MnSCU will complete an evaluation over all the MnSCU colleges before the position will be open. Once the position is open, the college will “aggressively pursue a candidate.”

Leading up to the decision to hire an online director, Gorsline said the college had to consider if it is worth it to pursue a greater online presence.

“The real question is; ‘Can we increase our enrollment through offering online classes?’” Gorsline said. “We have wrestled with the question ‘What do we want?’ and rather than just hire somebody to hire somebody, we waited. But it’s time to move ahead now.”

The director of online classes will evaluate the demand for an online class and take into consideration if the demand is all here on campus or if it will draw in new students. They will also look at how new online classes fit into program growth.

“They will ask the big question, ‘Is it going to bring us new students?’ Because that needs to be one of our ultimate goals,” Gorsline said.

She said it is great that online classes help already-enrolled students manage their schedules, but before we start offering more courses online, an evaluation of the classes needs to happen to ensure that money and time are being spent efficiently.

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