A graphic portraying the distribution of funds from the previous online fee of $35, presented by Michelle Giovannozi at the town hall meeting “Remaking the Online Fee.”

PSU’s evolving online course fees

Online courses are an expensive venture, and finding an equitable solution is a complex endeavor

Each term, students spend $22 per credit on all online courses. This is separate from the base tuition and is used to fund the unique factors that go into conducting online courses, such as specialized faculty training and the costs of up-to-date technology.


The fee for online courses was initially $35 per credit hour, but was brought down to $22 per credit in the fall of 2022. The previous and the current fee is charged only for courses that are fully online, excluding hybrid, remote and attend-anywhere classes.


For many students, the fee provides another financial hurdle to jump through. Yet some don’t have a choice when it comes to registering for classes offered solely online that are required for their degree. And if classes aren’t using the physical resources that in-person courses do, what do the fees fund?


Student impact 


Marc Faustine is in his senior year studying business here at Portland State. He’s taken some online courses that are required for his major, including supply chain management, principles of marketing and business technology.


“I think the course fees are a lot considering that sometimes it feels like you are just working off of assigned tasks which look over things that don’t involve any of PSU’s resources,” Faustine said.


Faustine isn’t the only student confused about what services online fees support. Other students, including Joal Zaragoza and Alex Purtle—human resources and psychology students respectively—expressed similar incertitude.


Zaragoza began at PSU during the pandemic, when nearly all classes were taught online. “I’ve taken most of my business classes and communication classes [online],” Zaragoza said. “Even though the fees are a lot, I don’t really know where [they’re] going.”


Purtle has taken six courses online so far in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. “I don’t know where the funds are going,” Purtle said. “I don’t think there should be a fee for online classes. Remote classes are indeed a lot more difficult to teach and/or attend… I applaud the teachers who are able to teach these classes.”


At $22 per online course, the fees quickly add up. For some, it’s enough to play a role in deciding which classes to take.


“Yes I have, especially in the summer,” Zaragoza said in response to whether they had taken the fees into consideration when deciding whether or not to register for a class.


“I have taken fees into account and some of them are quite outrageous,” Purtle said.


Where is the money going?


The most recent fines & fees approval report marks July 1, 2022. In the report, the Student Fee Committee, PSU’s board of trustees and President Percy approved online learning fees for up to $35 per credit in all online courses. The school, however, currently only charges $22 per credit due to a town hall held in the fall of 2022.


According to the July report, this fee “includes costs associated with administration, residency, online class support, library access, non-traditional course formats, and technology support.”


Dom Chen is the vice chair of the Student Fee Committee, an organization within ASPSU that manages mandatory fees charged to university students. The money from online course fees tends to cover multiple costs to online courses, Chen said, such as licensing for Zoom or the upkeep of digital systems.


“We decided to get on this online fee committee… where we would get together and talk about how exactly we could make this thing equitable,” Chen said.


The event she is referencing is a virtual town hall meeting the Student Fee Committee and Office of Academic Innovation held in Feb. 2022, titled Remaking the Online Fee. The Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation Michelle Giovannozzi led the meeting.


“We want to ensure that… PSU’s online and flexible courses are designed and taught to the latest and highest standards for student success, supported with staff and infrastructure,” Giovannozzi said at the 2022 town hall. “To do this, it takes intentional design, expertise and resources that need to be funded in a sustainable way.”

The three models under review, presented by Alex Sager and Michelle Giovannozzi.

Specialized training is required to prepare faculty to conduct classes online, thus a large portion of the funds from course fees are spent on it.


“Some of these costs as you may see do not directly relate to the online fee,” Giovannozzi said at the town hall. “That’s one of the challenges that we’re hoping to address, and some of those expenses or areas covered may need to shift.”


During the meeting, the academic budget office and Student Fee Committee town hall addressed the concerns related to the then $35 mandatory fee per credit hour of online courses.


“There are several flaws that come up with the current structure,” Chen said. “Some students avoid taking classes because of this fee… students who [attend] remotely pay disproportionate fees. I have come across a couple students who are completely online because they’re out of state. Those are examples of students who have to pay the fee.”


The biggest criticism levied against the traditional course fees were how they impacted fully online students more than anyone else. Over and over, the concept of equity arises when making these sorts of decisions. Policymakers within faculty, administration and the student body must weigh the needs of the university with the needs of its students, and that leads to complex discussions about what to do.


“There was real concern that we were putting a disproportionate burden on some of our more vulnerable students,” said Dr. Alex Sager, a university studies professor, at the meeting.


The future of online course fees


At the town hall, three different models for a restructuring of online course fees were reviewed.


The fee previously stood at $35 per credit hour for all fully online courses. The first of the two new models suggested a new mandatory fee of $8.15 per credit hour be applied to all courses being attended at PSU, regardless of modality. The second model suggests that a course fee of $20.50 per credit hour be applied to all courses that are not fully in-person, which includes remote, hybrid and attend-anywhere courses.


“The biggest [question regarding] equity was… is it equitable for students to be paying a fee whether they benefit from it or not, so that everybody [has access to these courses]?” Chen said in regards to charging students for services they may not be utilizing.


The mandatory fee model echoes other fees of the same nature that are already in place, such as building and incidental fees.


The decision on how exactly online fees are going to operate in the future, however, is still under review as the university works to restructure this system. According to PSU’s webpage on online schooling, “This change to the online course fee is an interim step toward the ultimate goal of exploring a new mandatory fee or tuition adjustment.” As the decision requires approval from a range of institutions involved with the university, it will likely take time.


“This year, Amy Mulkerin and Ryan Bass co-led a task force to explore a potential second phase of remaking the online fee, shifting to a mandatory fee or tuition-based model,” Giovannozzi said in an email to Portland State Vanguard. “Those efforts are currently on hold until next year.”