Online College Costs: A Breakdown of Tuition and Fees

Online College Costs: A Breakdown of Tuition and FeesOnline degrees can save students money compared to a traditional degree. Online students avoid bills for campus housing, transportation, and child care. But schools tend to tack on a lot of fees for online degrees, and those fees can push your cost higher than what a traditional student would pay. A Dallas Morning News investigation found that schools often charge more for their online degrees than their campus degrees. Still, with a bit of detective work, you can get a great education at a fair price.

For-profit schools pioneered the online degree, but many public universities have jumped into the market in the past few years. That’s great for students. Not-for-profits tend to have lower tuition and offer majors that are in demand by employers. If you’re looking for the right school, your first step is to find places that have a good program in your major. Next up, figure out the cost. We’ll walk you through the steps to do that.

For-profits need to make a profit.

As the name suggests, for-profits are trying to profit from education. They tend to spend more on marketing and recruiting students than a not-for-profit. Until starting a job-placement initiative in 2012, Phoenix University had more than 8,000 recruiters and no career-counseling services, according to a Time magazine article.<

For-profits have come under government scrutiny recently because of the high rates of debt that their students tend to carry. Eighty-eight percent of for-profit students took out student loans in 2012 versus 66 percent of students at public schools, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. And students at for-profit schools graduated with higher debt loads, the study found.

For-profits have defended these figures by noting that they serve low-income students and others who have faced barriers to education. Still, graduates of for-profits also have higher rates of loan defaults than their not-for-profit peers, according to a Money magazine article. New government regulations could affect the ability of some students at for-profit schools to receive financial aid, so be sure to check with your school.

Not-for-profits just need to pay the bills.

Not-for-profits can be public or private universities. Regardless, they are collecting tuition to cover costs, not to make a profit, and exist to help build a more educated society. That doesn’t mean these schools are inexpensive though.

The increasing cost of tuition has been in the news for years. Part of this increase is due to state budget cuts that have forced schools to increase tuition to cover the gap. Some is due to schools paying more to attract top professors, and there’s some argument that part of the increase has come from brick-and-mortar schools putting in exorbitant recreation centers and other amenities. You can still find deals though, particularly if you pick an in-state school or a school that offers in-state tuition to all online students.

Both for-profit and not-for-profit colleges have a lot of fees

When you calculate college expenses, you will need to search for fees. You will be charged one fee or another from the time you apply until you graduate. A few schools now charge more in fees than they do in tuition, according to a ProPublica article.

One of the biggest expenses will be the technology fee. Schools use this to cover equipment, networking, and maintenance costs. Not-for-profits often list their technology fees per credit hour, so the cost can be easily tabulated based on the hours you need to graduate. For-profits tend to charge technology fees based on course, so you will need to figure out how many classes you will be taking. Reach out to the office of admissions or the office of the bursar at your school for more information on fees.

The most common fees

  • Application fee: $20-$50 – Remember that you may have to pay extra to have an official high school or college transcript sent.
  • Books: $1000-1,500/semester – Not technically a fee, but books will likely be your single biggest expense aside from tuition. Some for-profits have started to roll the cost of books into their tuition.
  • Distance Education/Technology fee: $25-$80/credit hour – Most colleges charge a lump technology fee per credit hour, but a few break this into multiple parts such as a network fee and library fee.
  • Graduation/Diploma fee: $25-$100 – Required to process graduation paperwork.
  • Matriculation fee: $100-$400 – Some schools charge this when students enroll, others charge every semester, though those schools tend to have a lower fee.

Watch out for credit hours

For-profits often require 180 hours to graduate versus the typical 120 hours at other universities. This means more tuition. And if you need longer to graduate, you’re delaying the time until you reap the rewards of your degree.

Does in-state vs. out-of-state matter?

For­-profit colleges charge the same for all students, though some offer discounts to active military and their spouses and dependents. Some public universities charge in-state tuition for all online students. If you are looking for a great deal, check your state universities first. Then check schools in other states that will offer you in-state tuition.

Some schools charge identical tuition for online and traditional degrees, others offer discounts to online students because the school doesn’t have to maintain campus infrastructure for those students. A few charge more for online students, but this is rare.

Online students usually pay a higher technology fee than traditional students, but the amount they save in other areas makes online fees less expensive as a whole. Brick-and-mortar students also pay for health services, transportation, and recreation.

Some majors are pricier than others

Online schools often charge more for courses in certain majors, such as engineering or nursing. Some brick-and-mortar schools are starting to base tuition on major as well. If you are set on becoming an engineer, don’t let the higher tuition stop you. Many of the majors with the highest tuition are the most in-demand, so you’re likely to make that money back — and then some — after graduation.

A cost comparison

Costs below are for a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts field and are for the most recent year available, usually 2014­2015. Out­of-­state tuition is listed for those schools that charge extra. Tuition at not­-for­-profit schools does not include fees. Some for­profit schools include fees in their tuition prices.

Cost comparison

Note: Oregon State University operates on a quarter-term system, so students take more classes each year.

A prospective student could easily become overwhelmed by the expense of school. Fortunately, schools want you to enroll and will be eager to provide you with information about costs and financial aid.

Remember that the least expensive school is not necessarily the best school for you. Consider whether a school has a strong program in the field that interests you. Ask about job-placement rates and weigh the importance of a school’s name recognition. A college education continues to be the best path to a better career and stable life. With the proper research, you will someday make back far more than you spent.

Are you looking for the right program for your budget and academic goals? Search no further. Below, we’ve ranked the top programs in a number of academic fields that traditionally provide students with a solid return on their investment. A central component of our criteria in these rankings is affordability. All of the schools on our list offer an affordable combination of tuition and financial aid, allowing students to pursue their degree at a school that won’t overwhelm them financially.

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