Consider This Before You Pay for an Online Degree

Make sure you know the ins and outs of degree finances before you commit.

Coursera now offers roughly 100 free online education courses from 16 colleges and universities.

Coursera now offers roughly 100 free online courses from 16 colleges and universities.

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For busy folks seeking a college or graduate degree, online education may seem like an attractive route that can cater to their lifestyles. Professionals with full-time jobs, for instance, may welcome the ability to squeeze in classes after work or on lunch breaks, while parents juggling kids' schedules can coordinate their learning around elementary school pickups and soccer practices. 

"There was no way I could possibly afford to quit work and support my family and go to school traditionally," says Jayson McQueary, a 31-year-old radio DJ working toward a bachelor's degree offered online by Minnesota's College of St. Scholastica. "That was a big reason I was able to do this, because of the flexibility it allows me." 

[Find out how to succeed in an online course.] 

But while going to school online can allow you to continue working, it's not a financial shortcut in all areas. Tackling how you'll pay for an online degree can be as tricky as trying to fund a traditional degree. A study in 2008 by the Babson Survey Research Group found that online students pay largely the same amount in tuition and fees as on-campus learners, and traditional forms of paying for college, such as scholarships, can be scarcer for distance learners. 

When thinking about how to pay for an online education, keep these factors in mind: 

1. Tuition: Online education programs do not have a universal method of charging students. While some schools post one lump sum for a program, many schools charge by the credit hour or course. Students may be able to start with some credits—and thus decrease their time in school and tuition bills—if their programs offer credit for previous college coursework or life experience (University of Maryland—University College, for instance, offers the latter). 

Since what you'll pay can vary vastly by school, it's crucial to plan ahead of time, making sure you know how many credits you can transfer in (if any) and how long the program takes to complete. When you're researching an online college or graduate program, ask an adviser to map out a degree track for you, recommends Tom Finaly, chief operating officer of the United States University, a San Diego-based school with online program offerings. 

"A lot of students don't know to do that, and that's a mistake," Finaly says. "The consumer needs to know how much it's going to cost them, and how long it's going to take." 

[Avoid more mistakes online students make.] 

2. Fees: In addition to tuition, online students are often charged a variety of fees, sometimes even for services they may never use. Fees for technology, activities, materials, and more add up, though students may not realize it until after they've enrolled or received a bill. "Most people will stick with the tuition and won't see the fees," Finaly says. 

When evaluating programs, make sure you're calculating the total cost of attendance, accounting for the number of years a program will take to complete. Don't forget to factor in the cost of required books and other learning materials. 

[Find out how to get cheap textbooks.] 

3. Employer reimbursement: It's common for working professionals to complete online degrees with financial help from their employer, but some companies wait until students receive their grades before cutting checks. If a workplace reimbursement program will be a key component in financing your online degree, check to see if the schools you're interested in have flexible payment options. 

At the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies, for example, students can make payments after receiving remission checks from their employers, giving them time to demonstrate their grades and get reimbursed, says Ted Bongiovanni, director of the Distance Learning program. 

4. Program amenities: If some on-campus involvement is important to you, weigh the program amenities at the online schools you are considering. At NYU, for example, students completing their degree online may still meet with financial aid counselors and career center advisers, Bongiovanni says. 

Corrected on 1/10/12: An earlier version of this story misidentified the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies and Tom Finaly.