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."
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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."
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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.
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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.
5. Loans: Online learners, like traditional students, have borrowing options. McQueary at the College of St. Scholastica, for one, uses a Stafford loan to pay for his online course materials.
If you'll be using loans to help finance your degree, keep in mind that experts recommend you exhaust all federal loans first before turning to private options. Continue to plan carefully so you don't borrow more than you need, U.S. University's Finaly recommends.
6. Scholarships and grants: There tend to not be as many scholarships for online learners as there are for traditional learners, but some opportunities do exist. Institutions including the University of Illinois—Springfield report to U.S. News that they offer scholarships, grants, fellowships, or assistantships to distance learners.
Online learners with financial need are also eligible for federal grants such as the Pell, which funds up to $5,550 a year for the neediest students. Just like traditional students, distance learners must complete the FAFSA in order to receive any federal aid. The 2012-2013 version has been available since January 1.
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7. The big picture: Though costs can add up, earning an online degree from an accredited institution may be especially worth it if allows you to achieve higher levels of education while continuing to earn a salary.
"When you're thinking about the cost, you shouldn't only be thinking about the actual out-of-pocket costs, but the opportunity cost of pursuing one thing over another thing," NYU's Bongiovanni says. "By that calculation, I think online ed does really well. You do have a lot more flexibility."
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.
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.