As COVID-19 swept across the country in March, colleges shuttered and millions of students and instructors were propelled into a world of distance education. Institutional leaders are now grappling with how to provide a quality education over the academic year ahead while also guarding the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff. Online instruction is a core component of many colleges’ strategies, with a growing number abandoning in-person plans for the fall. Questions about the feasibility, quality, equity, and costs of online instruction sit front and center. Our recent analysis suggests that the difficulty of shifting instruction online is likely to vary across fields of study, and that movement to online education is unlikely to reduce instructional costs.
Students have rightly lamented the loss of face-to-face interaction with professors and access to on-campus facilities. Ample evidence suggests that students are less successful in online formats, especially students who are least prepared, and even in formats that blend online instruction with in-person support. Some students have called for tuition refunds due to perceived cost savings and lower quality of online instruction. At the same time, colleges face extraordinary budget woes from lost state and tuition revenue and increased need for student aid. If online instruction produced substantial cost savings, this would give institutions a bit more wiggle room to confront such challenges.