You have decided to start an online degree program. Maybe you are finishing a degree track you began over twenty-five years ago, or perhaps you are taking college courses for the first time. You have chosen a batch of attractive programs to apply for, but the cost of tuition, textbooks and program-specific fees has you hesitant to jump in headfirst. In spite of this, there’s no need to compromise your educational experience or worse, abandon it altogether. When pursuing a degree online, you want to choose a program that best fits your needs of affordability, reputation and relevance to your personal goals, allowing you to maximize your investment by avoiding debt and graduating on time.
The Cost of College: Online vs. On-Campus
In order to better finance your education, it is important to recognize the major cost differences between attending college online versus on-campus. Beyond base tuition, undergraduates living on campus incur a number of additional fees for room and board, meal plans and books, as well as fees for health, technology and student activities. In some cases, medical insurance, transportation and other miscellaneous costs may arise; compare this with the cost of online programs, which typically only include additional expenses for technology, online access to library resources and the occasional program-specific fee.
For comparison, as of 2018, the total yearly cost of the on-campus Bachelor of Science in Computer Security & Information Assurance program at Norwich University is $57,514 whereas the total cost of the entire online Bachelor of Science in Cyber Security program ranges from $8,400 to $35,900 depending on prior credits and number of credits taken.
Balancing Cost with Quality
While the price of tuition is certainly a key factor in selecting an online degree program, it cannot be the only concern driving your decision making. According to a 2015 report by LearningHouse, almost half of students surveyed chose the least expensive school from which to earn an online degree. However, a low price can denote poor quality just as much as it can signal a legitimate deal. Avoid potential scams by first checking that a potential program is fully accredited by regional or national accrediting bodies. For instance, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). You should also verify professional and program accreditations, such as the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP).
Contact the Office of Financial Aid
Once you have decided on an online degree program and ensured that it is of quality and within a reasonable price range, contact a financial advisor at the school to question and gather as much information as you can about financing options. You want to make sure that you have a comprehensive breakdown of tuition, as well as a clear understanding of any additional fees that may be applicable to your program of study. Some online programs feature technology expenses that cover the cost of 24/7 tech support and continual upgrades to the virtual classroom technology. If applicable, you will also want to discuss transfer credits, as relevant prior coursework can reduce the amount of time you spend in the program and the amount of money you are likely to spend on your education.
Financing Options for Distance Learners
When it comes to applying for financial aid, there are a number of options available to prospective students. There is no definitive approach to the manner in which you finance your education, so it is helpful to understand both your financial situation and the economic prospects inherent to your career trajectory; thus, you will be able to apply for the types of aid that will be most relevant to you.
Federal loans are a popular option for campus-based undergraduates and distance learners alike. It is recommended that you seek out federal loans as a first course of action, as they tend to come with lower interest rates and you are not obligated to begin paying such loans back until six months after withdrawal or graduation from your program. Private loans should be held as a last ditch effort because they typically come with high interest rates and must be paid off as soon as you stop taking classes. To see how much federal aid you qualify for, fill out the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA); it’s completely free to use, and you may discover that you also qualify for additional grants or scholarships.
In many cases, colleges will offer flexible payment plans for individuals who cannot afford to pay entire semesters’ worth of tuition up front. These plans allow you to make manageable monthly payments that may alleviate the need to take out an excessive amount of loans. These plans take several forms; there are standard plans, which allow distance learners to pay the amount of their annual tuition over several months, or deferred plans that have two or three fixed payment periods before, during and after each semester. On the opposite side of the coin, tuition stabilization plans allow students to pay for several semesters of tuition ahead of time in order to avoid future tuition hikes.
While there are typically fewer scholarship opportunities for distance learners, it is well worth your time to thoroughly investigate all options available to you. Some schools will award scholarships on the basis of past academic performance or leadership aptitude, and can include program-specific aid in different disciplines, while a number of private scholarships are often awarded by businesses or organizations to individuals who show promise in their field of interest. By filling out FAFSA, you may find you are eligible for federal grants, such as the Pell grant, which can provide up to $5,920 depending on your economic needs. The biggest and most obvious advantage to scholarships and grants is that unlike loans, they do not need to be repaid and are essentially “free money” towards your education.
An increasing number of companies have begun offering student loan repayment assistance, or employer reimbursement, in an effort to entice and retain workers. Employers will award a fixed monthly amount—typically, in the neighborhood of $100—to help cover the cost of student loans. Not only does this benefit employees, but it also provides tangible return on investment to employers because they are bolstering the financial security and career longevity of their employees, thus incentivizing them to stay with the company and apply their newfound knowledge to operations. You should speak with your current employer to see what company policy allows, and whether or not employer reimbursement is applicable to your ongoing studies and tuition payments, or only available once you have graduated and need to start repaying loans.
For those who are currently serving or have previously served in the military, many online programs offer the ability to help cover tuition through military tuition assistance and Veterans benefits. For eligible active duty, reserve, and National Guard personnel, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Tuition Assistance (TA) program may provide up to $250 per credit hour. This may be used in concert with the GI Bill, which can provide applicants with funding each academic year depending on the percentage of benefits for which they are eligible. To determine your eligibility and to apply for benefits, visit the VA education benefit application website.
Earning a degree online is challenging, rewarding, and can change the course of your entire life. Don’t miss out on achieving your goals simply because you don’t think you can afford it. There are plenty of options, many of which can be combined with one another, that can help you gain entry into a program, stay enrolled, and reach your potential without sending you into burdensome debt. Use the resources available to you; talk to admissions and financial advisors, and do not be afraid to ask questions. Investing in yourself through a quality education will ultimately prove worth your time.
As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.
At Norwich University, we extend a tradition of values-based education, where structured, disciplined, and rigorous studies create a challenging and rewarding experience. Our online programs have made our comprehensive curriculum available to more students than ever before.
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