Breaking Down the Cost of Getting a Degree Online

Most of savings for online students comes from tuition and housing

Breaking Down the Cost of Getting a Degree Online

Whether you just graduated high school and are seeking to avoid upwards of $100,000 in debt for you and your parents, or have been out of school for awhile and want a college degree without uprooting your life, welcome to the absolutely burgeoning realm of online education. Let us help you take the right approach to figuring out your real costs.

Finding the numbers is easy, so what’s the real difference for online education?

Very generally speaking, a fully online undergraduate degree from an accredited university is around 40 percent less expensive, in terms of tuition and non-book fees. Further, attending on campus for most people involves moving, often to an area where housing is at a premium. If you are considering applying for an online degree, you may already be settled in terms of housing and in a job that is covering your expenses better than you may be able to find in a college town. All the other costs, such as books, supplies, and required technology are nearly identical whether you attend on campus or online, but you should ask your prospective university what those costs are. They will vary depending on your major and particular classes, but a good admissions office will help you get appropriate estimates.

Books alone over the span of earning your degree will likely cost well over $1,000, perhaps up to $5,000, although you should definitely explore options for used books and even rental.

So the real savings for online students comes from tuition, and not having to move. This does not scratch the surface of potential savings from earning a micro-degree online, so the imperative for prospective students is to pick their university and ideal program of study, and then ask the school to provide a detailed cost breakdown. If they don’t estimate costs of books, and any other less expected fees, ask your admissions contact to help you develop a full and complete picture of what will have to come out of your pocket.

But there are some costs they can’t help you with.

Net Price Calculators

All colleges have Net Price Calculators on their website. These are handy tools that let you put in your information, like your desired major and degree level, your expected income, your GPA and test scores, and whether you’ll be living on campus, and get an estimate on how much you’ll pay for your entire degree.

All colleges have been required to host a net price calculator on their website since 2008. You can look for them on each school’s website, or search for your school through the US Department of Education.

Weighing options means weighing opportunity

One concept high school students hear about, but it usually does not register, is the economic principle of opportunity cost. We tend to learn it without bothering to apply it to our own lives—once we’ve started paying for our own rent and food for awhile.

A simple way to put it starts with the question, if I spend ten or even 20 hours per week in online classes, homework, and study, what does that get me for my future? And the answer can’t be complete without addressing the follow up about opportunity costs: what if I spent those same hours doing something else?

The real cost of anything can only be understood once you discern what else you could have done with that same amount of money and time.

Let’s take the extra job example as one that comes down to something you could calculate in dollars. The true cost of getting an online degree is not just the tuition and any books you have to buy, but the money you could have been earning, and perhaps investing, during that same amount of time.

That said, many HR managers will not even consider an applicant who doesn’t possess a relevant degree, and if you are eager to improve your career prospects over the span of your life, then the real calculation must include your chances for increased salary and benefits once that degree is in your pocket.

Don’t forget to look for deals, and for help

Once you’ve got the costs nailed down from the university you wish to attend, ask if they have offered any recent discounts or specials for online enrollment. If so, will they again? Tell them that the cost is not the only factor, but definitely a real consideration for you, then let them do some talking. They might just talk themselves into offering you a special rate. Next, consider applying for financial aid or student loans. But if these are loans and not grants, they need to be repaid and you should consider the interest rate carefully and make sure you get the best rate.

Lastly, ask yourself whether, and how much, you may be able to rely on family. Going to college and getting that degree represents the kind of commitment and investment in your future that gets parents and loved ones supportive on your behalf. Even if you’re going exclusively online, many students make a deal with their parents: free rent, I pocket the money I earn from any job I have, and when I get my degree I have a nest egg that will allow me to move wherever I need to go once I land that better job.

Some parents even throw in food, cooking, and a little help with the laundry, so the student can focus on work and study. In this sense, it becomes the reverse of an opportunity cost—a form of income that may not make sense any other time in your life except when you are a student.

What do online students have to pay that those attending campus don’t?

The one area prospective online students must remember to explore is the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for many universities. If you live in the same state as the university you wish to attend, you may qualify for the same massive discount as any other resident, even as an online student.

Other than that, any fees charged specifically to online students should be negligible compared with the typical tuition savings, though you should ask your admissions office to confirm.

Online education right now is trending in a direction that may one day dominate on-campus four year undergraduate programs. Moving to a university, paying high tuition and housing costs (for tiny spaces), competing with thousands of students for low wage jobs while there, and figuring out a basic sustenance and sleeping schedule while so many undergrads are learning how to party for the first time in their lives is a tough deal for many. The only wonder is why it took this long for online education to really take off.


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