Several weeks ago I received an eight-page insert to my local paper detailing the online degree programs at East Carolina University. The insert proudly proclaimed:
“With more than 60 degree and certificate programs in health, education, technology, business and other areas, East Carolina University has the largest network of distance education students in the state.”
What caught my eye however was the small print on the bottom left corner of the outside fold. It read: “1,670,292 copies of this public document were printed at a cost of $86,292 or 5¢ per copy.” According to the Office of Online Programs at ECU, the 1,670,292 figure represents the number of inserts needed if the publication were distributed to every newspaper in North Carolina with a circulation of 10,000 or more.
While ECU touts it printed 1,670,292 copies of the document at 5¢ per copy, the University conveniently ignores the cost associated with actually getting the brochure to the customer, that is, the newspaper insert costs. Staff at ECU’s Office of Online Programs tells me this spring the office spent $97,591 to distribute the brochures as a newspaper insert. Last fall, the office spent $85,591 to do the same. If we add the distribution costs to the printing costs (5 cents per copy), the actual costs double to more than 11 cents per copy.
Are The Expenditures Justified?
I have nothing against online education. In fact, online education is an attractive, effective and economical educational option for students of varying ages. What I question is the expenditures and the efficacy of the expenditures. The actual per copy cost was more than twice what ECU reported.
The UNC Office of General Administration states 6,213 students are enrolled in distance education programs at ECU. It is the largest enrollment of online students in the UNC system. A quick review of enrollment statistics also reveals online enrollment at ECU has increased 94 percent since 2004.
Direct mailers consider a response rate of three to five percent to be the benchmarks of a successful campaign. In 2008, ECU online enrollment increased by 969 students over 2007 levels. If we attribute the enrollment of all 969 students to the ECU insert — an overly generous gesture — the “success” rate (i.e., enrollment/# inserts) hovers around .0005, that’s five one-hundredths of one percent. Not buying it? Let’s attribute the entire current online enrollment (6,183) to the inserts, the response success rate rises only to .003, or three-tenths of one percent. My point: results don’t justify continued mass mailing expenditures. ECU’s large online enrollment only obscures the real issue: large doesn’t mean efficient. With such an abysmal response rate to print publications, wouldn’t it be better to shift advertising to radio or online venues and in the process save some trees?
Yet the mailings continue, wasting your tax money and mine. Lest you think we’re nitpicking here, remember this: The actual publication and mailing costs for ECU spring and fall inserts total $355,700. These numbers aren’t table scraps. Also, remember nearly every UNC campus has an online component. A casual look at online programs at ECU, UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State and UNC-W reveals a fair amount of overlap in course offerings. And, I’m sure each of these campuses has a similar marketing campaign to attract students. As online education makes location irrelevant, UNC institutions are essentially competing with each other for the same students. If campuses fail to develop specializations, or continue to carry out ineffective marketing campaigns, the waste will only continue.
Isn’t online education supposed to help us save money?