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Online college classes: An answer to budget shortfalls?

Analysis says online distance education could be key to increasing college access in cash-strapped California

Sharing online content could save California colleges tens of thousands of dollars per course, a new report says.

California’s use of online distance education is “limited,” and campuses across the state should partner with a leading online university to expand students’ access to a college degree through online college classes, according to an extensive review of the state’s college access.

“Using Distance Education to Increase College Access and Efficiency,” released Oct. 25 by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), suggests campus officials could create more college access through online college classes despite the state’s budget woes that have raised tuition at many public institutions.

Bringing more online college classes to California, the report says, is the next step in fulfilling the Master Plan for Higher Education, a statewide framework published 50 years ago that promotes universal access to a college education.

LAO analysts point to Indiana as a possible example for California. Indiana legislators passed a law this year that would let students apply for state-funded financial aid grants to Western Governors University (WGU), an accredited online university based in Utah.

The state money would not fund WGU’s operational costs, but rather “increase the number of graduates—particularly for nontraditional students—with minimal cost to the state,” the report said. Undergraduate tuition at WGU costs about $6,000 a year.

The LAO report recommends the creation of a task force to create a “virtual campus” in California through a partnership with WGU, a nonprofit, private institution with more than 20,000 students.

The report stops short of claiming that online distance education is the only solution for expanding college access in California. Analysts cede that even students who take online college classes might want to take “hybrid” courses in which students attend some face-to-face lectures.

“[Online] distance education is not—and is not intended to be—suitable for everyone (students as well as faculty),” the report said. “Yet, as illustrated in the … analysis, it offers an important and growing means of delivering education that can complement existing formats and expand options for students.”

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