October 27, 2020
November 9, 2020
The Hidden Fees of Post-COVID Online College

Policy Intern

Partners' policy intern Catherine Burton

Everyone knows how expensive college has become for students in America over the past thirty years. But now that most schools have moved to predominantly online classes, it would seem that tuition, fees and other associated costs would have decreased.  Incredibly, the opposite is true. Students still must pay for expensive textbooks, fees for labs, facilities and programs they can’t access, and now, new technology fees.

Almost every college class has hidden costs required to participate and learn. These are the fees that aren't usually aren't included in tuition. Expensive textbooks are the most common and well-known. Students can pay anywhere between $20 to $500 for a single book. If all classes require some kind of textbook, the dollars start to add up.

Now with COVID-19 forcing educators to move their classrooms online, instructors are using different online programs – called learning management systems (LMS) – for their students to participate in classwork. Most of these programs require students to pay for a subscription in order to do homework or participate in classroom discussions.

Many colleges cover the cost of videoconferencing for streaming classes online – like Zoom or Webex – but they do not cover the cost of these other LMS. Because lots of classes use different software, just like textbooks, it becomes pricey. I have had to purchase subscriptions for Pearson MyLab, Packback, and TopHat for online classes I have taken. Sometimes, even if two classes use the same software, separate access codes must be purchased for each.  

Pearson MyLab, a platform that allows students to learn coursework and do assignments, costs $100 for an access code.  Packback, a website that lets students post discussion questions, costs $25 for a semester subscription. TopHat, which allows for classroom participation, costs $30 per term.

And it’s not just me. My friends and roommates are having to utilize multiple programs as well, including McGraw-Hill Connect, WebAssign, Vista Higher Learning, and Cengage. We all attend same university.

Access codes for a single class range between the cost of $25 to $155 for a semester.

Keep in mind that these access codes and subscriptions are additional fees on top of textbooks. This is not only expensive but confusing for students. Students now have to juggle multiple different programs to get their work done when each class is on a different system. 

College students also have to teach themselves when instructors heavily rely on these programs for their classes. Instructors can use these programs without really having to interact with their students at all. A lot of assignments are automatically graded and are produced by these third-party companies. It makes college students wonder what their tuition is really paying for if students have to pay for their new virtual classrooms outside of tuition costs.

Online college is now making higher education even more inaccessible than it already was. And all the subscription fees don't even cover the cost of paying for Wi-Fi, computers, and other technology at home that most colleges do not cover. Not to mention that with the state of the economy, going to college and taking out student loans is an expensive gamble that not all kids are willing to take.

Recently there has been a drop in FAFSA applications, largely due to the cost of college. Students need to be supported more instead of getting nickeled and dimed left and right. Virginia colleges have actually seen a 1.3%decline (6,658) in enrollment since the shift to online school. Although not as much as predicted, this is s disproportionately affecting lower income, minority and first-generation students.

During the widespread transition to online learning post-COVID, many higher education leaders have been quick to point to the added costs borne by the institutions transitioning to online learning but they have failed to address the added costs borne by students themselves. As a policy intern for Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust and a student advocate at Virginia Tech, this is an issue that I hope to draw attention to. According to several national surveys, students believe that the online education they have received post-COVID to be lower quality than in-person education and they should payless for it.

But in my experience, students are now paying more for less.

Moving forward, colleges and universities need to do more to make online learning more cost-efficient and affordable for their students. College administrators and department heads need to take a more coordinated and guided approach in LMS selection to increase uniformity and lower costs whenever possible.  The pandemic has presented schools with many challenges; but students can’t be expected to pay extra for these to be figured out.