Examine the costs of online degrees.
Higher education is a costly investment -- even if a student pursues a degree online. Between technology fees and, in some cases, travel, it's important to accurately determine the true cost before enrolling, experts say. Here are 10 financial factors for prospective students to consider before applying to online degree programs.
Many online programs charge by credit hour or course rather than by term. Prospective students should determine how many credits they plan to transfer, if any, and ask an adviser to map out their degree track to determine total costs. Some online programs offer tiered tuition, where students pay less per credit if they take more classes at once. Similar to traditional students, it's important for online students to note differences in in-state and out-of-state tuition, experts say. The online bachelor's degree program at the University of Florida, for example, costs $112 per credit for in-state students and $500 per credit for out-of-state students in 2020-2021, according to U.S. News data.
Most online programs require students to pay fees on top of tuition costs, though the types and amounts vary widely. At Oregon State University's Ecampus, the school's online arm, all new and transfer degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate students pay a one-time matriculation fee of $350. Some online programs also charge a per-credit distance learning fee. The University of Nevada--Las Vegas, for instance, charges $34 per credit for certain distance education courses. Prospective students should also look out for other payments, including assessment and graduation fees. For instance, UF Online at the University of Florida requires students to pay a $5.25 financial aid fee, a $5.25 technology fee and a $6.76 capital improvement fee per credit hour, according to the school's website.
It's pretty common for companies to help pay for employees' online degrees, though some might take more convincing than others. Experts say prospective online students should see whether their employer has a tuition reimbursement policy, such as the one Chipotle implemented in 2015, which provides employees up to $5,250 per year of tuition reimbursement. But an employer might finance an online degree only after it sees a student's grades, one expert says, so prospective students should check into flexible payment options.
Some online programs, especially at the graduate level, have a residency or other in-person requirement. For example, students in Indiana University's Kelley School of Business online MBA program typically must go to Bloomington twice for Kelley Connect Weeks. In many cases, it's up to the student to pay travel expenses, so applicants should check whether there are any on-site components beforehand. Some of these travel requirements may be suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit transfer isn't always a simple process, but it's doable in many online programs and can help students save time and money completing their education. "Some universities have more liberal policies than others," Susan Aldridge, former president of Drexel University Online, told U.S. News in 2015. "It's important for students to compare one institution versus another to determine the number of credits that will be transferred and the cost of education."
In general, the process of applying for financial aid is the same for online and on-campus students, so long as the program is accredited by the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that students are eligible for federal funds, experts say. Both types of programs, for instance, involve completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which many schools use to determine awards.
Few schools have scholarships specifically for online students, Aldridge says -- though she notes schools might not restrict other scholarships only to on-ground students, so applicants should check the requirements beforehand. Prospective students can explore available opportunities through scholarship databases online.
Loans and grants
Online learners with financial need and pursuing a bachelor's might be eligible for federal aid such as the Pell Grant, which provides low-income students a maximum of $6,345 for 2020-2021. And similar to traditional students, online students have private and federal borrowing options.
Additional technology expenses
An online student might face some additional unexpected technology charges. One who travels often for work, for example, might need to pay for Wi-Fi on the road. Some online programs also require high-speed internet to access video lectures. That means students may have to pay more for their service at home. Students may also need to purchase a laptop and additional technology like a headset for videoconferences.
Among undergraduates exclusively enrolled in distance learning in fall 2018, 1.5 million were enrolled in colleges located in the same state in which they lived, compared with 799,000 who were enrolled in schools in a different state, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Taking online classes at a school nearby may reduce costs, as students can benefit from in-state tuition rates and take advantage of a school's on-campus resources, such as meeting with career advisers in person.
More on paying for online degrees
Find more tips in our Paying for Online Education center, and access our complete rankings of the Best Online Programs. For additional advice and information on how to navigate online program admissions, connect with U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook.
Financial factors to weigh in online programs
-- Employer reimbursement
-- Required travel
-- Transfer credits
-- The FAFSA
-- Scholarship opportunities
-- Loans and grants
-- Additional technology expenses
-- Program amenities