Taking college classes online this fall? Here’s how students can save a lot of money – That’s Rich!

CLEVELAND, Ohio – If the coronavirus has you staying at home to take classes online this fall instead of heading to a campus setting somewhere, here’s a pennywise thing to consider – explore enrolling at a lower-cost school and transferring those credits later to your regular college or university.

The difference could be thousands of dollars.

I first discovered the cost savings by accident long ago after taking a job in Cleveland with a few credits to go at Ohio State. I ended up paying Cuyahoga Community College $23.50 a credit hour on the old quarter system, about half the going rate at the time at Ohio State. But the courses counted the same, transferred just fine, and I graduated a short time later from OSU.

More has changed than the rising cost of education since the late 1980s. It’s easier than ever to identify what classes will transfer and, with expanded online options, you’re not even restricted to nearby schools.

This is something that could be the right fit for both existing college students, or recent high school graduates who may be altering what had been their plans to move away to school this fall.

At the very least, it’s worth considering.

Q: How much can you save?

A: Thousands of dollars for a full-time student, hundreds on an individual class.

A 2019 report from the Ohio Department of Higher Education found that for the previous year, 51,000 Ohio students saved $70.7 million by transferring work from lower-cost schools to more expensive institutions.

Scaling that down to an individual student, the price difference between Ohio’s public universities and its two-year colleges averages close to $2,600 a semester.

The average tuition and fees (not counting room and board) was $4,975 a semester at the main campuses for state universities this past school year, according to the Department of Higher Education. At Ohio’s two-year colleges, the average was less than half that – $2,369 a semester for a full-time student.

Two-year schools in the Greater Cleveland area are among the least expensive in the state, in part because of local property taxes that help pay the bill.

For example, taking 15 credit hours at Cuyahoga Community College would cost $1,788 this fall in tuition and base fees for county residents, unchanged from this past school year, or a little higher for those outside the county. A Kent State freshman on KSU’s main campus would pay close to $5,800 for the same number of classes.

But it’s worth shopping around to see if there are any special incentives. For example, Cleveland State is offering incoming freshman a 2-for-1 deal: complete the fall semester with at least a 2.75 grade point average and attend spring semester tuition-free after other financial aid is applied.

Tuition and fees for full-time students at Ohio’s public two-year colleges average about $2,600 less than attending classes on the main campuses for the public universities, according to the Ohio Department of Higher Education.Rich Exner, cleveland.com

Q: Is this strategy really OK with the four-year schools?

A: Yes. It’s embedded in Ohio’s public education system, and a lot of private schools follow similar acceptance policies on transfer credits.

Sean Broghammer, associate vice president for enrollment management and admissions at Kent State, said he does believe there is a value in an on-campus experience, from developing lasting career-driven relationships with professors to learning from peers and experiencing campus life. But being on campus all the time is not for every student, and that could be more so the case this fall because of COVID-19.

“Our biggest concern is that we want students to complete. We want students to make progress. If they want to take a semester off, we want to help them ensure the course they are going to complete will transfer back to Kent,” Broghammer said. “We’re seeing a decline in the traditional student population. … I think transfer is a way more students will complete their college degrees.”

Back in 1989, Ohio started what is called a transfer module, so students would know exactly what credits will transfer between public schools in the state, including both two-year and four-year schools, explained Paula Compton, associate vice chancellor for articulation and transfer at the Department of Higher Education.

“It was a combination of the state legislature passing some legislation for better cooperation. Then we had colleges and college presidents thinking this was important,” Compton said.

Compton said more than 1,000 faculty currently work on the program to help certify that courses are equivalent from one school to the next.

Q: What’s the easiest way to search for classes?

In getting started, Compton suggested two websites that can help a student quickly determine what classes will qualify for transfer credit, the state’s own website at ohioed.org/transfer and transferology.com, which provides details for schools in many states.

On the Ohio system, if you’re searching for what classes will transfer for what credit between institutions, navigate to the “Transfer Guarantee Reporting System” or use this direct link. By choosing the “course equivalency comparison” option, you can see where the same courses are offered and what they are called from school to school.

For example, macroeconomics ENCM 151 at Lorain County Community College is equivalent to ECON2030 at Bowling Green State University.

The transferology site offers a nifty option to enter a class requirement from your regular school to see a list of other schools with matching classes eligible for transfer. For instance, if you’re looking for a class that will count as Introduction to Economics at the University of Akron, the search returns 45 options just among Ohio schools. This site requires a free registration.

In both cases, however, it’s a good idea for current students to talk to their advisers. You don’t want to take a class that doesn’t end up counting fully. For instance, even if a class transfers as credit, there might be other limits, such as the number of classes taken elsewhere that can be counted toward a major or minor.

“Most four-year universities are going to have transfer credit guides,” Kent State’s Broghammer said.

Q: Does staying at home mean finding a nearby school?

A. No. My two sons each took some community college classes in the summers while they were completing their degrees at Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan universities.

For one, it worked to take online classes at Cuyahoga Community College. The price was right. The class options fit. And it was easy to stop by the school for enrollment questions or to pick up required materials at the bookstore. The credits transferred without a hitch.

For the other, the class he wanted wasn’t offered in the area. But the online search tools identified Belmont College, a two-year state school near St. Clairsville, 135 miles away.

He double-checked with BG to make sure the course would fulfill his requirement, enrolled remotely and took the class online. Everything worked out smoothly, and he is yet to walk through the doors at Belmont College.

It’s going to be easier to find general education requirements elsewhere, such as typical entry level courses. But it is possible to take care of some upper level requirements as well.

Q: Does this fit for recent high school graduates?

A: Yes it can. Some recent high school graduates may be thinking about putting off their college plans a year; call it a coronavirus-related gap year.

For those students, another idea to consider may be taking classes online at home through a community college and then going away to campus next year as an incoming sophomore, said Jack Hershey, president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.

“An online plan this semester eliminates at least some uncertainty,” Hershey said. “It’s the safest way to make sure you stay on track this fall. … We can’t predict what this virus is going to do this fall.

“You do gain something from being in a physical environment while learning, especially if you live at a campus environment. But if you are not going to get there this fall, community college is an option.”

The dollar savings can be as much as a typical student normally borrows for a year.

Q: When to enroll?

A: Sometime this summer.

“We have an understanding that people are going to be making late decisions this year. I think you have plenty of time if you’re thinking about this in the next month or so,” Hershey said. “Every community college is open enrollment. You don’t have to go through SATs and things like that.”

Angela Johnson, vice president of enrollment management at Cuyahoga Community College, said students can enroll right up to the start of classes on Aug. 24. But she said it’s a good idea not to wait to the last minute, adding that Tri-C does not charge an application fee.

“If everyone waits until the last minute, it can be busy,” Johnson said. “We have quite a few students right now who are looking at this opportunity, pre-transfer conversations, the transient confirmations.”

Transient is the college term for a student who is staying enrolled at another school – say Ohio State – but taking classes temporarily elsewhere, such as Tri-C. The procedures are a little different.

For example, Johnson said, financial aid such as student loans for transient students must be coordinated under agreements with the school of permanent enrollment.

Q: What if you prefer being part of a class?

A: There will be more options than before for online.

Traditional online education might not be for everyone. Typically, it has meant staying focused on assignments and checking in online for the next requirements.

But a lot has changed, and those changes are being accelerated this summer in preparation for the first fall semester of the COVID-19 era.

There will be more offerings at many schools for students to meet as a class online with the instructors, rather than working as much on their own or just watching recorded lectures.

It’s a nod to the traditional learning environment. Kent State’s Broghammer said professors were consulted about what would work best for individual classes: in-person, remote or a hybrid of the two – and for remote whether there would be live lectures.

“At least 60% of our traditional in-person courses will be taught remotely,” Broghammer said. “Our classroom space creates a challenge” for social distancing, adding that any course with at least 50 students will be taught remotely.

Hershey made the pitch that community colleges are especially experienced with online education: “We’ve been doing it for years. We had to do it for an adult population who may have had kids at home who could not come to campus three days a week.”

Q: What has been the response?

A: Predictions are for higher community college enrollment statewide.

Typically during economic downturns, enrollments at community colleges go up. Reasons could involve people seeking new job skills, having more time to take classes, or searching out lower-cost alternatives to four-year schools.

As the country was coming out of the Great Recession, community college enrollment in Ohio in 2010 increased to an all-time high for full- or part-time students of 211,260.

Then, as the economy recovered, enrollment declined 19% to 170,945 by 2015 – returning to about where it was at ahead of the recession in fall 2007. Four-year schools didn’t see the same swings, with enrollment slipping off just 2% from 2010 to 2015, according to state data.

Tri-C’s Compton said because of the late-enrolling nature of community college students, especially those looking for transfer credit, “it’s very difficult” to predict whether enrollment will spike this fall.

Statewide, however, Hershey, from the community college association, said evidence is developing that enrollment will be up at the two-year schools.

“We have seen it in the summer already,” Hershey said. “We have also seen very late-breaking decisions by families and students.”

That’s another reason it makes sense for students to begin exploring their options now, especially in confirming with colleges what classes will transfer and count toward degree requirements if they are already enrolled elsewhere, even if the ultimate decision will come later this summer.

Rich Exner, data analysis editor, writes cleveland.com’s and The Plain Dealer’s personal finance column – That’s Rich! Follow on Twitter @RichExner. See other data-related stories at cleveland.com/datacentral.

Earlier from That’s Rich!

Does it make sense to pay off your mortgage early? Here’s what to consider

CARES Act makes this ideal time for a student-loan payment checkup

Coronavirus and taxes: Revised July 15 filing deadline nears; IRS not yet processing paper forms

What you need to know to get an unemployment check in Ohio, plus $600 extra

— to www.cleveland.com

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