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Institutions often struggle to persuade full-time instructors to stray from tradition and start teaching online courses. In some cases, adjunct instructors bear the burden when other faculty members aren’t willing to step up. When possible, institutions offer incentives for teaching online, ranging from stipends to priority room selection for face-to-face courses.

Colorado Mesa University a decade ago took a decidedly different approach. Salaries for online instructors there are calculated differently from those for face-to-face instructors, such that online instructors with large class sizes end up getting paid far more per course than their face-to-face counterparts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prospect of more money proved enticing. Three-quarters of the university’s 600 online courses each year are taught by full-time faculty members, with adjuncts covering the remaining 25 percent, according to Timothy Pinnow, senior vice president for strategic initiatives.

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In fact, the initial offer might have been too enticing. The institution has had to make adjustments to the policy over time -- most recently, by placing limitations on the number of students who can enroll in some popular online courses that had swelled to more than 100 students per class. (“Inside Digital Learning” first learned of the institution’s policies around online education from an article in The Criterion, Colorado Mesa’s student newspaper.)

The policy and its subsequent tweaks highlight, in the eyes of Colorado Mesa’s administration, the value of experimentation as the higher education landscape navigates increasing instability. Tim Foster, the institution’s president, said the compensation structure was designed to encourage instructors to teach online -- and it worked, he says, because the university was willing to stray outside convention.

“There’s no downside to the institution. There’s upside to the individual, depending on how hard they want to work or how much they want to take on,” Foster said. “It was a bit of a no-brainer. There was very little doubt in my mind that it would work. Otherwise we wouldn’t have done it.”

How Instructors Get Paid

The institution first made a push online around 2006, accounting for the fact that the institution is located in a part of Colorado where “there are more jackrabbits than people,” Foster said. Instructors were reluctant to take on the time-consuming responsibility of developing online courses, even when the administration emphasized the potential for teaching online to help refine teaching techniques more generally. The institution also experienced massive enrollment growth in the late 2000s and early 2010s, which meant instructors were stretched thin more than ever.

Full-time instructors get paid a standard rate for a semester of 12 credit hours. If faculty members want to take on additional credit hours, compensation looks as follows:

  • Face-to-face: Between $600 and $850 per credit hour. Base rate depends on highest degree earned. Graduate classes count as four credit hours, while most undergraduate courses count as three.
  • Online:
    • $55 multiplied by the number of credit hours multiplied by the number of undergraduate students.
    • $67 multiplied by the number of credit hours multiplied by the number of graduate students.

Online faculty members get paid for a minimum of 10 students, even if their online course has fewer.

For comparison’s sake, let’s imagine a three-credit course with 20 enrolled students, taught by a faculty member with the highest possible degree earned.

  • If the class is taught face-to-face, the instructor would earn $850 times three credit hours, for a total of $2,550.
  • If it’s online, the instructor would earn $55 times three credit hours times 20, for a total of $3,300.

Each online student is worth $165 to an instructor, which means a course with 40 students would pay an instructor $6,600, and a course with 60 students would pay $9,900. A comparable face-to-face course would pay no more than $2,550.

The number of students doesn’t affect compensation for face-to-face instructors, but it can considerably ratchet up compensation for online instructors, who are thus incentivized to increase online enrollment.

What Worked and What Didn’t

Full-time instructors found the prospect of teaching online harder to resist. Adjunct instructors, meanwhile, were more inclined to teach at Colorado Mesa than elsewhere because of the competitive compensation, Pinnow said.

Class sizes for a little more than a dozen of the institution’s courses started ballooning to as many as 100 students. The institution grew more aware that online students benefit from frequent interaction with their instructor, leading administrators to start “putting more fences” around online instructors, according to Pinnow.

In fall 2013, the university introduced an overload limit for full-time faculty members of five credit hours per semester and eight credit hours per academic year. Earlier this year, the Faculty Senate approved a measure that will place enrollment caps on online courses.

Exact numbers and the timeline haven’t worked out yet, but the university plans to make these changes gradually so that adjunct instructors aren’t suddenly facing a massive dip in compensation. Pinnow expects the process could be challenging.

“They’ve gotten too big not because of the faculty members’ fault, just because of incredible growth we’ve had,” Pinnow said. “The faculty member who teaches that course might be making $10,000 from that additional course. It can be hard for a faculty member to say, ‘You’re right, it really shouldn’t be this big,’” Pinnow said.

Some departments have also created internal policies around who gets “overload” assignments for online courses, Pinnow said. In the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, for instance, senior faculty members get first choice for overload credit hours.

“We had so many people who wanted those classes that we had to find ways to make those assignments in an equitable way,” Pinnow said.

This model has faced similar challenges elsewhere. Eastern Michigan University had until five or so years ago a similar policy of paying online instructors per student for overload hours, according to Howard Bunsis, professor of accounting. Many faculty members balked at the initiative, according to Bunsis, because they saw it as rewarding only a handful of instructors while also prioritizing cost savings to the institution over a high-quality experience for students. Just like at Colorado Mesa, consensus began to form that online courses with 80 or 90 students might be efficient for institutions to produce but weren't providing students with enough opportunities to engage directly with instructors.

"To me, it corporatizes and commoditizes higher education," Bunsis said. "Higher education should always be about the learning experience. When you pay people this way, it really doesn’t coincide with that mission and what we’re really trying to accomplish.

Most institutions are less generous with compensating online instructors, according to Tim Green, a professor of educational technology at California State University, Fullerton, who has conducted research on faculty compensation. Green said institutions sometimes will pay instructors additional money if they have to teach a class with more students than the agreed-upon enrollment cap. But many institutions simply pay a base rate per credit hour, Green said.

Still, finding ways to encourage faculty members to embrace online catches institutions' attention. Several Research 1 institutions, including “a fairly prominent one in the South,” have reached out to Colorado Mesa expressing interest in the university’s approach to paying online instructors, according to Foster.

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