U.S. News Data: Online Education Isn't Always Cheap

Investment in technology and faculty training can make online ed expensive for schools and students.

Many people assume online education is cheaper than the alternative. That’s not always the case.
By + More

This, according to Britt, allows the school to "deliver a high-touch experience" and spend only 7 percent of its budget on faculty costs, as opposed to around 70 to 80 percent, as most colleges do. It also allows the school to charge students less – Penn Foster charges $79 per credit, Britt says.

The school offers self-guided learning and students are encouraged to reach out to faculty members when they haven't had success getting help from an active online community of their own peers interested in similar subjects.

Instructors at Penn Foster aren't tenure-track faculty members, but rather experts in their field. And they support 10 times as many students as faculty do at traditional universities, says Britt.

Debating the different kinds of online education models brings up issues of quality, experts say.

"Some of the cost savings models have less interaction and engagement with the faculty members," says Schroeder of the University of Illinois—Springfield. "As we look at MOOCs, for example, they certainly save students money but there isn't quite the same direct faculty engagement. Students need to decide what works for them and what fits their budget."

In the meantime, Blair, who graduated from Vermont Technical College in 2011, says she's fine with paying a little extra for her online education.

"For the instructors, teaching an online course is a lot more labor intensive," she says. "They are on the computer answering your questions and doing follow-up. I think the cost is worth it."

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.