If the law isn't changed, out-of-state students who take online courses through JSU or other state universities would see their tuition double in the fall.
"This would destroy distance education at Alabama's universities," said state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville. "They wouldn't be able to compete."
State law requires public universities to charge two different rates of tuition. Students from Alabama pay a lower rate — currently $265 per credit hour at JSU — while students from other states must pay twice that amount.
Most other states have a similar system. Because public universities are funded partly by state tax money, the theory goes, students from other states should pay a larger share.
But that rule has rarely been applied to the world of online education, where a student's location didn't seem to matter that much. Schools have often set a special rate for online courses and charged everyone the same price. At JSU, the charge is $327 per credit hour.
It's not cheap. If you took 120 online credit hours, enough for a bachelor's degree, online at JSU, you'd pay more than $39,000. That's about $8,000 more than an in-state resident would pay to take the same classes in person.
Still, some students find it worth the price, either because they're far from the school or because they have work schedules that don't match with traditional classes.
"These courses work because they're flexible," said JSU Provost Rebecca Turner. "Students can fit them into their schedule."
No one seemed to mind the arrangement. But last year, while conducting a regular review of the finances of the state's universities, an auditor for the Examiners of Public Accounts asked the question: Shouldn't the double-tuition rule apply to online students as well?
"They were passing the question up the food chain," said Assistant Chief Examiner Sharon Russell. The Public Accounts office sent the question on to Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange. In August, Strange's office ruled that, yes, out-of-state online students should pay twice as much, starting this fall.
That ruling could be a disaster for the online plans of institutions such JSU, said Dial, the Lineville senator.
"Everybody would go to Phoenix," he said, citing the University of Phoenix, a private college that is well known for its online offerings. "I don't know another state that does it this way."
Dial said he thinks the attorney general's interpretation was right. It's the law, he said, that needs to be changed. Dial has sponsored a bill — SB45 — that would exempt online students from the double-tuition requirement.
Dial and others say the state needs to stay competitive because online courses are a growing sector of public education.
"The growth in online courses has been phenomenal," said Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group at Babson College in Massachusetts. Seaman's organization does regular surveys to assess the spread of online courses. (Those surveys are funded by the nonprofit Sloan Consortium, though education companies such as Pearson and Kaplan have also funded them in some years.)
Seaman said there are about 6.7 million students who take online courses, up from about 2.3 million 10 years ago. About 30 percent of college students take one or more courses online, he said.
That's close to the percentage at JSU, where 3,829 of the university's 9,161 students took at least one online class, according to school officials. Of the 1,665 students who took all their courses online, 715 were out-of-state students.
As much as half of the growth in total nationwide college enrollment over the last decade may be due to the expansion of online learning, Seaman said. He said he doesn't see online classes ever replacing in-person classes, but they’re an option students have come to expect.
Seaman said he wasn't sure what a doubling of out-of-state tuition would do to JSU's online enrollment.
"Price is a factor, but it may not be the biggest factor," he said, noting that students take online courses because of their flexibility.
Turner, the JSU provost, said a tuition increase might hurt online enrollment in business courses, which are available elsewhere.
Other students might feel compelled to simply pay up. JSU's doctoral program in emergency preparedness is one of only a handful nationwide, Turner said, and many of its students telecommute from out-of-state.
In an ideal world, Turner said, online courses would cost the same as in-person courses, or even less. She said the higher online tuition rate helped offset the cost to set up an online system. But there's increasing competition from new online services offering courses at low prices.
"If we want to compete, tuition should be going down, not up," she said.
Dial's bill was passed out of committee last week and may get a vote in the Alabama Senate as early as this week.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.