On behalf of the Kaimin, congratulations to our dear Provost Jon Harbor for trying to follow through with his promise to make the University of Montana the state’s leader in online education. But at what cost, Provost Harbor?

UM is considering a contract with two Online Program Management companies (OPMs) that will develop online courses and degrees in exchange for a sizeable chunk of tuition money.

With enrollment drops exceeding 30 percent in the last eight years, it’s clear the University has to find an edge over the competition to attract more students. But what if increasing online enrollment ends up costing UM even more? Potentially losing more than half of online tuition money would be huge. For online-only students, that’s about $1,600 for an in-state undergrad and about $3,000 for an out-of-state undergrad per semester, according to the Montana University System.

But the funny thing is, those numbers are still hypothetical. The cost proposals from Pearson made all responses in the financial sections confidential. So these “trade secrets” leave the public in the dark about the cost of online education until a contract is made with one of the two OPMs. If Pearson is chosen, there’s no telling how much it could charge the University, since that information is currently kept secret.

Better yet, one, if not both, of these OPMs would receive private student information, which would be stored and kept forever, according to OPM executives.

For non-traditional students or those who cannot afford to either move to Missoula or commute to campus, this is an invaluable way to obtain higher education in Montana. But for incoming students who opt for an online de- gree but would otherwise come to campus, the University will be set up for a major loss.

Harbor’s former employer, Purdue University, boasts enrollment exceeding 40,000 students and exists in a state with more than 10 public universities offering bachelor’s degrees at a minimum. UM’s enrollment is less than a quarter of that, and MSU is the only other four-year public university in Montana. It’s not a fair comparison.

It’s unclear whether the University has even considered other options for online education. With so much money on the line, not to mention the integrity of students’ education, shouldn’t we be more careful?