Gen Ed Discounting or Devaluing?

U of Akron cuts the price of certain general education classes by 86 percent, and boasts that they will be less expensive than those at community colleges. But two-year institutions disagree, and professors say effort is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

April 17, 2015
University of Akron
Students in class at the University of Akron

University of Akron plans to cut the cost of its general education courses by 86 percent and begin delivering them primarily online in an effort to both increase enrollment and respond to calls from the state’s governor to make college more affordable for Ohioans.

The university is publicizing that by charging $50 per credit hour -- down from $359 per credit hour for an in-person general education class on the college’s main campus -- students who enroll in the GenEd Core Pilot Program will pay half as much as they would for a general education class at a community college.

Yet Northeast Ohio community colleges and representatives from Akron’s faculty union are skeptical about the program. Community colleges, worried in part that the program will erode their student base, have accused Akron of inaccurately advertising the financial benefits of Akron over two-year colleges and “misleading” students.

“The overall cost of the 60 credit hours at a community college for the associate degree is less than half of the cost for 60 credit hours at the University of Akron, even with the proposed discounted tuition structure,” the presidents of Cuyahoga Community College, Lorain County Community College, Lakeland Community College and Stark State College wrote in a joint statement. For four community colleges to jointly issue a statement criticizing a local public university -- on the day that university announces a new program -- is unusual. And so is a public university boasting about savings for students who might otherwise go to community colleges.

Courses not offered through the program are $359 per credit hour in Akron's four-year program and $282 per credit hour in its associate degree program. 

“At the end of a student’s registration, they’ll know what the true cost is. The students will make the decision,” Stark president Para Jones said. “We are still the most affordable option, without a doubt.”

Meanwhile, the president of Akron’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, biology professor Steve Weeks, says he’s dubious the program will actually benefit students, who early in their college career might not do well with online education.

General education classes -- which at Akron can include up to 200 students per course, Weeks said -- are generally a large source of revenue for colleges and often subsidize smaller upper-level seminar courses. Lowering the price of general education offerings could make it difficult for Akron to pay for smaller courses or expensive specialty programs, unless the university is able to increase enrollment.

Todd Rickel, Akron’s vice provost and executive dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology, said the low price of the online general education classes should prompt an increase in enrollment that will not only pay for the cost of the pilot program but also continue to help fund upper-level courses.

“Our intention is to attract additional students,” Rickel said. “The greater community and the region is quite large. We’ve seen a drop-off [in enrollment] over the past several years, so this is a way to maintain relevancy in the community.”

Akron “should be good” financially if it increases enrollment and, through student advising and counseling, focuses on retention, he said. In addition to attracting new students, Rickel says the program will also encourage existing students to take general education courses at Akron, as opposed to other campuses. Some Akron students, according to Rickel, have been opting to take general education courses at schools with lower tuition, especially during the summer. 

Akron will begin offering the online courses as early as the fall, but has not finalized which courses will be offered. The college's governing board approved the program Wednesday.

Rickel expects modest enrollment gains in the fall, with more significant increases later in the spring semester after more students have learned of the program. He says the university doesn't have "a specific number" for predictions on enrollment gains. 

Weeks said the program won't be financially beneficial unless there's a substantive hike in enrollment.

“If that does not happen, all we’re doing is shifting students from one area to another; we’re getting less money and, in my opinion, giving them a less high-quality experience,” he said.

Akron's undergraduate enrollment in the fall was 21,600, down about 1,000 students from the previous year.  

Connie Bouchard, a history professor and vice president of Akron’s AAUP, said she’s worried about the "cannibalization” of university resources.

“It will just add to the deficit, which we’re having trouble filling anyway. We’re pretty much tuition driven,” she said.

Weeks and Bouchard said Akron’s president, Scott Scarborough, has told faculty that the university will be about $20 million in the red this year. Rickel said the university will likely have a deficit, but said officials are still balancing the books and did not have a set figure. Akron has a roughly $380 million general fund budget, $99 million of which is funded by the state.

The online general education courses will be offered through Wayne College, Akron’s two-year college in Orrville, Ohio. Under the plan, they’ll include in-person elements, such as optional office hours with a professor, and “experiential” learning, such as an assignment to visit a museum. The price for a three-credit course would be $150, plus a fee that is at least $49 per course. For comparison, a three-credit general education course at Stark would cost $462, with most fees (not including costs like lab fees) included.

Akron will continue to offer full-price in-person courses, currently priced at $359 per credit hour; however, officials expect enrollment in the full-price courses to drop once the GenEd Core program is rolled out.

When planning the program, Rickel said, he looked for other public four-year colleges that were following a similar path but was unable to find any. “To my knowledge this is a fairly unique effort,” he said. 

Many for-profit companies offer inexpensive general education courses online, and not always for credit. The Baltimore-based company StraighterLine offers online courses for as low as $49 per course (This figure has been updated). StraighterLine is not accredited and students must get a transcript with credit recommendations from the American Council on Education if they want to seek transfer credit for a StraighterLine course to another institution.


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