Online Courses Might Offer a Path to More Degrees – and to Reducing the Carbon Footprint

Students walk to and from classes on the campus of Arizona State University. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – Older students who don’t want the full on-campus experience – and the costs associated with it – might be served effectively through high-quality online college degree programs, according to a new report.

And that might reduce the carbon footprint, too, saving money for both college and student.

The typical student pursuing an online degree through Arizona State University is a 31-year-old woman with a job who started college elsewhere and is seeking a place to complete it, according to a report the university released this week at the annual ASU+GSV Summit, a conference for people interested in education innovation.

“The boundaries between online and face-to-face are crumbling,” Dan O’Neill, general manager for the Walton Sustainability Solutions Services at Arizona State University, said in an interview Tuesday.

Online courses might also save money, according to the report, which was produced by the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives at Arizona State and financed by Dell Inc. The report said “socio-economic benefits” expected for graduates – an increase in earnings, net worth and retirement benefits – were estimated to be $545,000 per degree, according to the report. And online classes could save energy and reduce the carbon footprint by an estimated 30 to 70 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per degree, according to the report. The reduction calculation was based on decreases in car travel and in construction or renovation of classroom space.

Related: Is Arizona State University the model for the new American university?

At Arizona State, online courses began in earnest five years ago. And soon all courses – online and in-person – will make use of the same high-tech tools for teaching and learning. Arizona State officials say this offers an efficient way to educate students who might not otherwise earn a degree.

“It’s not the same population who are seeking the immersion and on-campus experience,” Leah Lommel, chief operating officer at ASU online, said during a panel discussion at the ASU+GSV Summit. “This is just another avenue. I would say our online learner is just different … moving to campus is just not going to fit.”

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Admissions requirements for online and in-person programs are identical, Lommel said, and degrees from the in-person and online programs are identical. The difference is that the average online degree student is older, and not starting as a freshman. On average, online students at Arizona State arrive with three or four transcripts from other institutions, Lommel said.

ASU’s online program has more than 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled currently, according to a university spokeswoman, and the most recent retention rates are 87% for undergraduate students and 92% for graduate students. Graduations rates were not immediately available, a spokeswoman said.

University leaders didn’t simply digitize traditional courses to create the online degree program. They invested in staff and course development. They have been tracking data to ensure students were progressing. And, on the front end, the university also screens online degree applicants to help prospective students assess whether they have a reasonable expectation of success in the program, Lommel said. That includes a discussion about the difficulty of the academics, and the cost of a degree.

After all, online or not, students must be prepared for college-level work and for finding the money to pay tuition.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government, courts, business and religion. She was a staff writer at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., The York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pa., The Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa. and The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and has been published in The Atlantic's online edition. She won first prize and best of show for education writing in 2011 from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. She earned a B.A. in journalism at the Pennsylvania State University.