Economy has Riverland, other colleges looking at online classes

By Karen Colbenson

Post-Bulletin, Austin MN

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s goal to have more students earning credits online over the next several years could mean a bump in enrollment for Riverland Community College, which is facing its first decline in more than two years.

Pawlenty last week announced a goal to have 25 percent of all MnSCU credits earned through online courses by 2015. The online learning initiative, formed with MnSCU, aims to expand access to college, increase technology skills, inspire course content and maximize efficiency and use of taxpayer resources.

Pawlenty also has directed the Minnesota Office of Higher Education to explore establishing online tuition reciprocity agreements with other states to give students more choice and access to online college courses and programs. 


Online learning vs. enrollment

Riverland Community College, which has campuses in Austin, Albert Lea and Owatonna, had an enrollment decrease of 3.5 percent this year. According to Riverland president Terry Leas, online and post-secondary college courses are becoming increasingly used options as more students struggle to balance work, family, school and increasing tuition, and educational institutions battle decreases in funding and enrollment.

Leas said there are more chances for students to take courses online, helping cut transportation and child-care costs.

"People are finding it challenging to meet the cost of driving, general costs such as groceries — everything has gone up, and we think it’s affecting students’ ability to pay tuition and fees and go to school," Leas said. "Some students are having to stop going to school and work longer to save money, or they are job searching and not able to pay for tuition."

A report released this month indicated that statewide enrollment in web-based classes is increasing: 22 percent of college students took at least one course online in fall 2007, an increase of 12.9 percent from the previous year. According to MnSCU, last year 9.2 percent of all registered credits were from online courses. About 66,000 students, or 26 percent, were enrolled in at least one online course. Also, more high school students are enrolling in college courses through post-secondary options, which grew by 4.5 percent in last year.

MnSCU to seek funding

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities recently announced plans to seek an increase of $71.7 million, the lowest biennial request in the system’s 13-year history, and $55 million less than the original proposal.

David Olson, chair of MnSCU’s board of trustees, said the request recognizes the state of the economy.


"Given current circumstances, the board has acted thoughtfully in scaling back the request," Chancellor James McCormick stated in a press release.

Even if the Legislature appropriates the full $71.7 million, the "bare bones budget" will mean tough managerial decisions, the release states.

The request also assumes a tuition increase of 3 percent a year at state universities and 2 percent at state colleges.

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