The Costs of Online Learning


It’s impossible to put a single price tag on “online learning” because, like cars, colleges, and cottages, it comes in widely varying levels of quality and efficiency. Instead, this paper attempts to estimate average costs—and a range of costs—for online learning  as currently practiced in the U.S. It’s widely believed that online teaching and learning will save money compared with traditional schools, and that may be true under some circumstances. Certainly it’s possible. But the choices, trade-offs, quality considerations, and timelines matter enormously.

In these pages, we estimate the costs of blended learning models and full time virtual schools as currently operated in the U.S. We find that average overall per-pupil costs of both models are significantly lower than the $10,000 national average for traditional brick-and-mortar schools—and that virtual schools are cheaper on average than blended schools. Yet there is wide variation in spending among both virtual and blended-learning schools. So we express our cost estimates as ranges rather than precise figures—and we pay ample attention to trade-offs, start-up costs, professional development, and other key variables. These ranges are illuminating—from $5,100 to $7,700 for virtual schools, and $7,600 to $10,200 for the blended version—but much better data on both costs and outcomes will be needed for policymakers to reach confident conclusions related to the productivity and efficiency of these promising new models.

Written by Tamara Butler Battaglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans

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