Ending Tuition Unfairness for Online (and Part-Time) Students

Southern Utah's policies disadvantage students who take fewer credits -- like most who study online. The university is cutting the per-credit price by nearly a third as it tries to ramp up enrollment.

August 28, 2019

Like many public universities in many states, Southern Utah University knows it needs to enroll more students who do not fit its traditional model. That's not because the university is starving for traditional-age students; Utah fares better in long-term projections of high school graduates than do many other states, and Southern Utah's overall enrollment grew by a healthy 8 percent last year.

But as most states do, Utah has a large number of adults with some college and no degree, and enrolling more of those students is essential if the university is to serve the state well, its leaders say.

"It's a major concern for us," says Roger LaMarca, executive director of enrollment management and educational development at Southern Utah. "Failing to educate those people limits them and hurts our economy."

Most such students are place-bound and limited -- by work demands and/or family responsibilities -- in how and when they can enroll in postsecondary courses. Online education is the only answer for many of them, and the vast majority of them must chip away at their degrees part-time, taking six or eight credits each term.

And that's the rub. The Utah System of Higher Education, of which Southern Utah is a part, has a "plateau tuition" policy designed to encourage students to enroll full-time (and arguably more than full-time) by charging students no more tuition to take 15 credits than to take 10.

That may be sound policy to encourage full-time students to finish college faster and more cost-effectively, as many policy makers hope to do. (The Utah system's description of the tuition policy notes that "a student who takes 12 credits each semester during college will take a full year longer to graduate with a bachelor’s degree than a student who takes 15 credits per semester.")

But like many higher education practices crafted in an era when "traditional" students actually dominated college enrollments, this one actually penalizes students who don't go full-time: the first few credits a student takes each semester are priced high, and the price steadily drops as the credits mount.

For instance, Southern Utah (following state policy) charges undergraduate students $531.75 in tuition and fees for their first credit each term, an average of $369.46 for each of their first six credits, and an average of $300.06 for each of their first 12 credits. Southern Utah charges no additional tuition for the 13th to 18th credits per term, with students paying only $18 per credit more in "program fees."

What that means is that some Utahns who most need higher education to improve their career prospects or lives -- working adults, students in geographically remote areas with limited job opportunities -- pay more per credit than do full-time students on the campus. And that struck Southern Utah's officials as punitive and unwise.

"This is the largest piece of unfairness in our system," says Scott L. Wyatt, the university's president.

Most of Southern Utah's part-time students study online, where the anytime, anywhere nature of the course delivery meshes better with lives complicated by work, family and other responsibilities. And the overwhelmingly majority of the university's online students -- upward of 90 percent -- are taking fewer than 12 credits, with the average being seven. "In reality, by the time they get a bachelor's degree done, they have paid considerably more than the face-to-face student," Wyatt says.

That will no longer be true come the spring, when Southern Utah alters its tuition policies. Starting then, online undergraduate students will pay $300 per credit in tuition and fees, so that the typical online student taking seven credits will owe $1,800, instead of the $2,216.75 he or she would pay currently. Online tuition and fees will be capped at $3,600, no matter how many credits a student takes. (A sample schedule for some of Southern Utah's master's programs is below.)

"Right now I have to pay more if I’m an adult, trying to come back and do my thing, not as an 18-year-old," says LaMarca, the enrollment director. "We shouldn't be penalizing them because they’re coming back and doing what’s best for them, best for their families, best for Utah's economy and workforce."

Online's Future Growth

Online students right now make up less than one in 10 of Southern Utah's 11,000 students. But Wyatt expects that proportion to grow significantly.

"In five years or 10 years, we hope to have as many online students as we have face-to-face students," he says.

Some institutions might see cutting online tuition sharply as a strategy for driving enrollments higher, but Wyatt says that's not Southern Utah's vision.

"For some institutions, online is enormously less expensive because they rely primarily on adjuncts and part-time faculty members for instruction," he says. "We use some adjuncts and will continue to, but for the most part, our online courses are being taught by our full-time faculty."

Online enrollments can grow in a cost-efficient way because they don't drive spending on facilities and because "the cost of our alumni association doesn’t go up when we have more students, and it doesn't cost us any more to mow the lawn or to have Division I sports," Wyatt says. "As we add new students, the added cost of these new students is simply less."

So yes, Southern Utah is trying to charge online and part-time students "what we think the real cost is rather than using it to fund our on-campus operations," Wyatt says.

"We don't want to take tuition money from a single mom of three who’s waiting tables and trying to get a degree done online at night."

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