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Online Ed. Less Expensive Than Blended, Traditional Models

A new paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that, on average, the per-pupil cost of educating a student through virtual education is significantly less than the national average for traditional brick-and-mortar schools. The report also found that fully virtual programs are less expensive, on average, than blended learning programs, but did not address whether student outcomes were equal.

The fourth in a series called Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning (we wrote about the first one here), this paper found that virtual schools spend about $5,100 to $7,700 for each student, compared to $7,600 to $10,200 for blended learning programs, and $10,000 per student for traditional brick-and-mortal schools.

However, authors of the paper, who gathered data from public documents as well as in interviews with entrepreneurs, policy experts, and school leaders, cautioned readers against settling on a price tag for online learning because of how widely the cost of virtual schooling varies from program to program. The cost of online learning also does not take into account student outcomes, the researchers warned.

The paper identified five cost drivers that outline the way different types of schools allocate resources: labor, content acquisition and development, technology and infrastructure, school operations, and student-support services. While more than half of traditional schools' financial resources typically go toward labor costs, virtual schools can often reduce those costs by increasing the student-teacher ratio or by reducing teacher salaries by hiring only part-time teachers or paraprofessionals, said the report, spending an average of $2,600 per student, compared to an average of $5,500 per pupil in a blended learning environment. Virtual schools can also cut costs on school operations, spending an average of $1,000 per student vs. $1,700 on average in a blended environment, which is only slightly lower than the average for traditional school models, said the report.

However, virtual school environments often spend more on content acquisition and development, as well as technology and infrastructure, found the report, spending $800 and $1,200 per student, respectively. This is above the average for blended learning programs, which spend about $400 on content acquisition and $500 on technology and infrastructure per pupil. When it comes to student-support services, such as guidance counselors, special education teachers, and other supports, virtual, blended, and traditional schools spent roughly the same amount of money per pupil, said the report.

Virtual education is still in a nascent stage, the report said, and therefore robust data about the quality of online and blended programs does not yet exist. Without that information, it is almost impossible to determine the productivity of the investments in virtual schools, said the report.

"Those pursuing online learning will see that, though there is no 'silver bullet' solution, there is evidence to suggest that virtual learning (both part-time and full-time) can provide significant opportunity to save money," the report said. "Future innovation should include careful tracking of quality and outcomes to continue to provide more robust options for those experimenting with lower-cost delivery of instruction."

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