4 Hidden Costs of Online Degrees

Graduation fees and travel expenses can increase the cost of earning an online degree.

Students should research all costs associated with an online program before enrolling, experts say.

Research all costs associated with an online program before enrolling, experts say.

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College is expensive, and an online degree program is no exception.

While virtual students skirt room and board fees, they are not immune from the other myriad fees and expenses associated with earning a degree. They are also not shielded from hefty tuition charges, says Patrick Partridge, chief of enrollment at Western Governors University.

"Tuition at online universities varies widely, from approximately the same cost as a public university to more than twice as much," says Partridge. "Higher cost does not necessarily mean higher quality at an online college, so be sure to understand all of the costs."

The total cost of an online program can present some surprises. Below are four expenses students should consider when budgeting for an online degree.

[Read about the Best Online Programs rankings.]

1. Tiered tuition: No, tuition isn't hidden. In fact, schools are pretty transparent about what they charge per credit hour. What students may not realize is they could pay more if they earn their degree piecemeal – taking one class here, one class there.

DeVry University, for example, has a lower per-credit tuition rate for students taking seven or more credit hours a term, says Marcus Szymanoski with DeVry Education Group, the parent company of the school.

"It kills two birds with one stone. They might get through their degree program quicker, and it also saves a little bit of money," he says.

Students should also research whether an online program has separate tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state students. Daytona State College is one of several schools with higher tuition rates for online students who reside outside state lines.

The tuition difference can be steep, too. For the 2012-2013 school year, online in-state students at Daytona State paid just $92 per credit, compared with $560 per credit for out-of-state students.

[Learn more about paying for an online education.]

2. Myriad fees: Almost all online degree programs charge a technology fee, but the amount of those fees can vary widely from school to school.

Students taking online courses at Brandman University pay a $40 tech fee for each session they enroll in, for example. At Malone University, the technology fee – dubbed the "online distributed learning tuition fee" – runs $120 per course.

Prospective students should also keep an eye out for assessment fees, graduation fees and yes, even parking fees when shopping around for an online degree program.

Brandman assesses a $100 degree conferral fee for graduating students, and online English and math courses at the university come with a $25 assessment fee, which covers placement exams used to put students in the appropriate course level.

[Slideshow: Best Online Bachelor's Programs.]

3. Required travel: Not all virtual degree programs are 100 percent online. Some programs, particularly at the graduate school level, require students to complete an in-person residency.

This requirement caught Gonzaga University student Eric Doss off guard. The South Carolina resident is earning a master's in organizational leadership via an online program at the Washington school.

Gonzaga's program requires all online students to complete a three-day on-campus residency.

"I live in kind of a small town, and Gonzaga is in Spokane, which is also a small town, so that was three flights to get there, hotels and expenses and things like that," Doss says, estimating the cross-country trip set him back at least $1,000. While his company pays for his tuition and books, they do not reimburse for travel expenses, he says.

Though Gonzaga only requires one long weekend over the course of a two-year program, other universities require online students to travel to campus once every quarter or semester.

4. Recurring technology expenses: Ted Hessing traveled a lot for work, so he opted to take online courses while pursuing his master's in information technology degree at Rochester Institute of Technology. He later transferred to a brick-and-mortar program at the University of North Carolina—Charlotte, where he completed his master's, but returned to the online format to earn certification in Lean Six Sigma Black Belt through Villanova University.