Know the hidden costs of an online education

Online classes meet the needs of many college students. You can wrap them around a full-time work schedule, you can work at your own pace, and you can attend a school on the other side of the state or the other side of the country. Online classes often make it possible to pursue a degree even though no college or university near you has the right program.

Taking classes online can also be a more affordable option than the traditional model of living on campus and paying for a dormitory room and a meal plan. Some students take online career programs while living with their parents, saving the cost of room and board at a traditional school. If you can do all your coursework on your home computer, you save money on gas, too, because you don’t have to commute to school every day.

Hidden Costs of an Online Education

But be aware that online schools and classes can have hidden costs. You need to do your due diligence and make sure you know what your real bottom line will be. In factoring the cost of your degree, be sure to look at more than the tuition. Read the university’s website, and talk to the staff at the financial aid office before your commit yourself to an online degree. In particular, you need to ask these questions:

What is the cost per credit hour, and are there any discounts for taking multiple classes at one time? If cost is your main concern, you should definitely compare the cost of a fifteen credit hour semester at your local community college to the cost of a fifteen credit hour semester at the online college you are considering. Some online programs are quite expensive, and you may find that your local colleges are more affordable even if you have to attend classes in person. It’s also very common for schools to offer a fixed rate for a semester of full-time classes. When this is the case, you can take an extra class, known as an overload, for no extra money. It generally costs less to go to school full time than to pay a la carte for each class, so do the math and ask questions if you plan to go part time.

What are the required fees? Most schools are famous for adding fees on to a student’s bill. This is by no means a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to online colleges. In the 1970s, colleges piled on “student activity” fees. Now, you fees are more likely to be billed for “technology fees” or “assessment fees.” Almost all colleges and universities also levy a one-time graduation fee. These fees are non-negotiable. In other words, you may be thinking, “Well, I don’t use the computers on campus, so I shouldn’t have to pay the fee.” However, universities are mostly inflexible about charging these fees to all students regardless of actual usage.

What is the residency requirement for the degree you are interested in? Many universities offer “low residency” (“low rez” for short) degrees. In a low-residency program, you can take some, but not all of the classes online. You will have to take some of the classes “on the ground,” meaning you will have to be on campus and in the classroom for at least one class and at least one semester or one quarter. Some colleges and universities organize their low-rez degrees so that you have to attend on campus only during the summers. The important thing is to know, going in, how much time you have to be on campus so that you can calculate the costs of transportation and housing for the time you are on ground. Then you can weigh the time lost from work or your family against the benefits of the degree. A fully online program should be what it sounds like–fully online. But you should still ask whether there is an internship or residency requirement that has not been disclosed in the materials you have read so far.

Will you have to upgrade your home computer to meet systems requirements? Most colleges and universities use sophisticated online learning platforms. The most common ones are Desire to Learn and BlackBoard. When professors use these platforms, students have to submit work through the program. That means your computer needs to be up-to-date enough to allow you to do all your coursework. Some online learning programs are unfriendly to Apple computers, many are not friendly to laptop computers. When calculating the cost of your online education, be sure to find out what the systems requirements are for the course work. The cost of a new computer, new software, or an upgraded operating system might need to be factored in to your costs. One trick is to take your computer to the university’s technical support office and ask them to configure the browser settings to work with the school’s online learning program. If they can do it, then your computer will probably let you do the course work.

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