The Cost of Online College

While choosing an area of study is arguably the most important choice for anyone looking to pursue an online education, the next question you should ask yourself is how much your education will cost. Luckily, even though many students who choose to pursue online education do so for convenience, in most cases, it will not put any further stress on your pocketbook compared to the cost of a traditional education.

At first glance, certain online programs may seem to cost more than some state or technical school programs when strictly considering tuition numbers. However, considering that rising fuel prices are driving up the cost of commuting, and that online learning provides you with the ease and convenience of being able to work anytime or anywhere while tailoring the workload to your schedule, the flexibility of online learning is well worth what can sometimes be a heftier price tag.

Shaunelle Taylor, a working professional and mother of three, is currently working on her master’s degree at Ashford University. For Taylor, the ability to work on her education from home made online education the perfect choice for her situation.

Ashford University was “the best choice for me as a wife, mom of three boys, and full-time employee,” Taylor said. “I was able to fit [Ashford] easily into my busy schedule. Technology has allowed for me to pursue a college education, while living a busy life, and not neglecting my family.”

This is not to say that online students can’t still save money. To make sure you get the most bang for your buck, the first step you should take before deciding on a school is to look at the costs involved. Compare the prices of the program you wish to enroll in from several different schools. While costs should be similar when comparing identical degree programs, you should still remember that certain schools may carry more prestige (and therefore higher costs), while others may be more expensive simply because of the amount of credits or time required to complete the program or degree. Keep those factors in mind when looking at tuition prices so you do not toss out all pricier schools without a second thought.

Comparing Online With Traditional College Costs

According to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2010 report, the average published charges for tuition in the United States during the 2010-2011 school year ranged anywhere from the $2,700 mark for two-year degree students, to as high as the $33,000 mark for some doctoral students. The same report found that the average annual tuition and fees for students attending a two-year, public institution – such as a local community college – were $2,713.

Published charges for in-state students attending four-year, public schools were $7,605, while tuition and fees for out-of-state students attending public, four-year schools, were $19,595. When it comes to attending a private four-year school rather than a public one, the figures soared, with students paying $24,206 on average. In comparison, the average published tuition and fees at for-profit institutions – such as most online schools – were $13,256. The costs of post-graduate programs ranged from $6,588 for public master’s programs to $24,438 for private master’s programs. Doctoral costs ranged from $8,503 for public programs to as high as $33,679 for private programs.

Factoring in Additional Fees

With these figures in mind, the tuition and fees at some of the nation’s leading online schools may seem a bit high at first glance. However, you should think of the overall cost of your education to gauge the best value for you. For example, if you were pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education at Walden University, you would pay $260 per credit hour and require 181 total credit hours to earn a degree. This brings the cost of tuition to just more than $47,000 for an entire program.

The only other costs a Walden student incurs over the course of their education are books and reference materials, along with a $60 technology fee per semester.

In contrast, students attending a face-to-face, campus-based program must factor in additional costs such as room and board, or the cost of commuting if not living on campus. That could easily add thousands of dollars in additional fees each year. However, most traditional post-bachelor’s students typically live off-campus. Factoring in your housing situation, regardless of pursuing traditional face-to-face or online learning, is essential.

Taking a look at the cost of face-to-face learning at Liberty University, a traditional brick-and-mortar facility that has developed a successful online program as well, those enrolling in traditional learning programs must consider a whole new set of expenses. For traditional undergraduate students taking a full course load consisting of 12-18 hours a semester, tuition costs are $17,806 a year, as published on their website. Room and board ranges anywhere from $6,680-$8,050 in additional charges, depending on the dorm or living facility chosen, not to mention other fees associated with campus-based study, such as vehicle registration fees. This means that traditional students typically pay much more than their base tuition, simply due to additional housing costs and fees.

On the other hand, according to the Liberty University Online website, the average total cost of earning an undergraduate degree is simply $35,400, with no additional housing costs or campus-based fees.

This means that while the cost of online tuition may be higher than taking face-to-face classes at an in-state school, it is important to remember when considering online education that there will be no room and board costs to incur, no transportation costs, and there is the added convenience of working on your own schedule. This is especially helpful for working professionals, where the option to take a break from work to attend campus classes may not exist. Even if you are able to work a traditional class schedule into your day, the possible savings versus online tuition could be negated by losses in earnings due to time away from work, or simply due to the cost of commuting to and from class several times a week.

While the thought of tuition costs can be daunting enough for prospective students, the College Board estimates that budgets for students attending brick-and-mortar institutions in 2010-2011 were drastically higher when factoring in room and board, books and supplies, transportation and other expenses. In fact, after factoring in all other costs, in-state students at a public four-year school living on campus spent $20,339 last year, with out-of-state students spending about $32,329. However, this is nothing compared to the costs for students attending private, four-year schools living on campus – their total costs were about $40,476 annually.

Utilizing Financial Aid to Drive Down Costs

However, one important thing to consider before selecting any school is to not be overwhelmed by sticker shock when searching for the right school. In most cases, the cost it will actually take for you to attend the school is lower than the school’s published price after factoring in any grants, scholarships, and financial aid.

The easiest way to get an idea of what kind of financial assistance you can get is to talk to an admissions counselor or financial aid officer at a school being considered. They can give you a better idea of what tuition will cost after financial aid and educate you on the types of aid current students at the school are receiving.

Whether choosing to pursue a higher education in a traditional setting or online, it is important for you to focus on careful financial planning. After talking with admissions counselors and financial aid officers, take what information has been gleaned and do an analysis of your own personal finances. Doing this will allow you to know what you can afford for tuition and other fees when combined with your current living expenses.

Per the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, by October 29, 2011, each postsecondary institution that participates in federal financial aid must post a net price calculator on its website. The calculators will use data given by the institution to provide an estimated net price to current and prospective students based on your individual circumstances and budget.

If the school of your choice does not currently have a net price calculator, the U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center provides important net price information and other helpful information such as being able to search for schools by highest and lowest tuition rates. Here, you can compare tuition and other fees from public, private, and for-profit 2-year, and 4-year institutions.

Additionally, there are hundreds of scholarship opportunities that can be pursued regardless of where you are enrolled. There are several websites dedicated to helping students find the financial aid needed to pursue the education of their dreams, such as FastWeb.com and FinAid.org. These websites have compiled a vast database of scholarships and provide a detailed search engine designed specifically for helping students find the right scholarship opportunities.

One useful tool for anyone considering any type of college education is FinAid.org’s college cost projector. The tool acts as a calculator to help estimate total tuition costs to complete an entire program. This can give you a better idea of how much you will actually be paying over the course of your education by automatically factoring in things like tuition inflation over the course of the entire program. Then, once you’ve decided on a program and school, keep costs down by filing for federal financial aid. To do this, simply fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Keeping with the online aspect of education, the easiest way to file a FAFSA is to visit the official website.

“Students should borrow federal first because the federal student loans are cheaper [over time due to interest rates], more available, and have better repayment terms than private student loans,” said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and publisher of FastWeb.com and FinAid.org.

Kantrowitz also advised that students exhaust all grants, scholarships, and other forms of gift aid before borrowing from loan programs because unlike loans, gift aid does not have to be repaid. If you must borrow in order to pay for a program, Kantrowitz said that choosing federal loans first is the better route rather than seeking private loans, as you are often able to receive substantially lower interest rates through federal programs.

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