Editorial: Online classes could help make college more affordable


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The Mathematics Association of America reports that a quarter of Calculus I students will fail the course.

College is expensive, and if there’s anything we’ve written about incessantly, it’s that someone should do something to lower the cost of higher education.

An online education startup based in New York City, Outlier, might have a solution to this problem. The startup plans to provide high-quality introductory courses for low prices. It teamed up with the University of Pittsburgh starting in August with a pilot program that will now be extended into the spring and fall semesters. The program is part of the wave of massive open online courses (or MOOCs) becoming popular globally and could present new, cheaper options for student education.

The program Pitt is piloting with Outlier offers Pitt students credits for online courses designed by the startup, with the cost of three credits resting at the very low price of $400. The price is closer to that of a community college, which is undoubtedly appealing to many students. The current courses offered through Outlier are Calculus I and Introductory Psychology, but both Pitt and Outlier have expressed an interest in expanding the number of courses offered. The Mathematics Association of America reports that a quarter of Calculus I students fail, with the failure rate being significantly higher at certain universities.

The company boasts a wide range of features available for the small fee, including lectures from professors at top universities such as Yale, MIT, Cornell and Columbia. Unlike other remote learning programs, this one offers transferable credits. The courses also offer an interactive textbook, free tutoring, study groups and most intriguingly, refunds in the event that a student doesn’t pass the course.

Aaron Rasmussen, the CEO and founder of Outlier, recognizes the impact that the high cost of higher education has on students throughout their lives. He eventually wants to offer online courses in the 25 general education subjects that have the highest number of students enrolled nationally.

“At a time when millions of people are weighted down by trillions of dollars in student loan debt, it’s imperative that creative solutions — even technological ones — are developed to provide young people with viable options for gaining a world class education,” Rasmussen said.

The Outlier plan for low-cost education, if viable, would be a good way to offer students a chance to take basic courses at reduced prices and with much lower stakes, thanks to the possible refund. Currently, part-time per-credit rates at Pitt are $754-$900 per credit for in state students and $1,354-$1,729 for out of state students, according to Provost Ann Cudd. Outlier’s courses could make a major difference for low income students who have to take certain gen eds that may not pertain to their specific area of study. It would be fair to reduce the cost of taking those non-pertinent classes.

This new MOOC could be a good way to adapt to the financial needs of today’s students. In the future, if Outlier could create a program that would cover all basic gen ed requirements for students at a lower price than the cost of in-person classes, that program could make a difference in students’ financial situations. It could also lead to a change in the way we charge students for gen eds and other classes offered in person, making Pitt more affordable and therefore more attractive to a more economically diverse group of students.