TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida university system has set an ambitious goal of having 40 percent of the undergraduate student credit hours in online classes by 2025.
That would more than double the usage of online classes from the 2013-14 academic year, under a goal set by the system's Board of Governors.
A key factor in that transition will be cost, with the idea that students may have an incentive to shift to online classes if they receive breaks on tuition or fees.
A new report discussed by the Board of Governors' Innovation and Online Committee, which met Monday in Tampa, showed that students have actually paid more for taking online classes at six state universities when compared to the cost of taking regular classes on campus.
The reason was a distance-learning fee, which until this year ranged from $15 per credit hour at the University of West Florida to $53.33 at Florida International University, for taking online classes.
The Legislature capped the distance learning fees at $30 an hour beginning this year.
But even with the cap, a student taking a three-credit online class at the University of North Florida will pay $729.39, including the $30 per hour distance-learning fee, compared to $639.39 for the same class on campus.
Through the 2015-16 academic year, other schools charging per-credit hour distance learning fees for online classes included the University of South Florida, Florida Atlantic University and the University of Central Florida, the report showed.
"Most (university system) institutions assess a distance-learning fee to cover the incremental costs of developing and delivering distance education courses," the report noted, adding that 37 other states also use distance-learning fees.
Gov. Rick Scott, who has called on universities to increase the number of students graduating within four years, has opposed the distance-learning fees.
"Many students work and go to school full time and they should not be penalized for choosing to take online classes which can be more convenient than driving to campus," Scott said at an education summit in May. "In fact, online education should cost less."
The University of Florida and Florida State University charge lower tuition and fees for students taking only online classes. UF, under a legislative mandate, charges $129.18 per credit hour for online-only students, compared to the regular $212.71 charge. FSU charges $180.49, compared to $215.55, the report showed.
But FSU and UF students taking a combination of on-campus and online classes do not receive tuition breaks for the online classes, paying the regular tuition and fees.
The Board of Governors as well as a working group of some two dozen university leaders are looking at ways to reduce the cost of online classes.
The report shows one system-wide advantage of encouraging more students to opt for online classes is that it will reduce the need for classroom construction across all 12 universities. The report projects $184 million in potential savings if online enrollment over the next five years meets projections.
The report also showed that students who take online classes, on average, graduate at a faster rate. Students earning bachelor's degrees in the 2014-15 academic year took 4.3 years to graduate if they did not take online classes, while students taking more than 20 percent of their classes online graduated in four years.
Among the cost-savings recommendations that will be considered are efforts to share online courses and programs across the entire university system.
The report also recommends sharing services, such as instructor training, through the Florida Virtual Campus, which is designed to support online efforts at the state universities as well as the 28 state colleges.
Other proposals include the use of flat fees for online courses, reducing other fees and using block tuition.