When making the decision to go back to school, one of the biggest choices prospective students have to make is whether they will enroll in an online college or in a traditional, campus-based institution. While there are many differences between the two types of educational experiences that must be weighed, one of the biggest factors for students is the cost.
College tuition is rising rapidly across the board, and so it makes sense that prospective students are usually looking for the best deal. One of the biggest questions that comes up when students begin comparing traditional education to online learning is whether one is less expensive than the other. The answer is yes: in general, online learning will be less expensive than traditional education (though exceptions do exist, and every school has a different pricing structure). Here are some of the differences in cost between online education and traditional education, and what you can expect from each.
The Cost of Traditional College
Traditional college tends to be more expensive than online learning for a variety of reasons.
Traditional colleges come with a certain kind of experience: a quad filled with students, dorms and dining halls, big brick academic buildings filled with faculty offices and classrooms, and sports teams to cheer for. All of these amenities are much appreciated by students, and often enhance the overall college experience - but it comes at a cost.
Offering these programs, operating buildings, providing housing and food for a large student body, and maintaining the onsite staff needed to support students in all areas - including academics, health, and community wellbeing - requires a significant amount of overhead, and is therefore quite expensive. And typically, that cost will be reflected in students' tuition rates - so as schools offer more amenities and programs to compete with other institutions, tuition will rise to reflect those additional operating costs.
However, that doesn't mean that all traditional education comes at the same price. There are a wide range of options under the campus-based education umbrella, from community colleges to state universities to private institutions, which vary dramatically in price.
For traditional-aged college students - those between the ages of 18 and 22, typically - this on-ground college experience is the one they have in mind, and one they'll benefit greatly from. These younger students often need, and thrive as a result of, the structures and support in place in these environments that help guide them through their time at an institution. If this kind of environment sounds appealing, students should do their research - they may be able to find a traditional school that meets their needs at an reasonable cost.
Additionally, one of the biggest benefits of traditional education is that many schools offer institutional financial aid, which can dramatically affect the out-of-pocket expense to the student. That means that what students are expected to pay is much less than the advertised "sticker price." When combined with federal aid options or employer tuition reimbursement, students are often looking at a significantly lower overall cost than they might have anticipated. If you're considering an on-campus program but are wary of the cost, be sure to speak with the financial aid office to see what options might be available to you.
The Cost of Online College
In general, online learning is a more affordable option, as you'll get a high-quality education at a much lower cost due to the lower overhead needed to operate these programs. Not only does tuition tend to be lower, but many additional expenses, such as transportation costs and course materials, are eliminated in an online program.
However, it's important to note that the average cost of online college is still a significant investment. Many people go into their search for a degree program assuming that online learning will be very inexpensive, and are often surprised when they find out that tuition is still relatively high. Most students will still need to rely on federal financial aid (including student loans) and other resources to help pay for an online degree - and most online programs do not offer the same kind of institutional aid as traditional, campus-based institutions.
Despite this, students shouldn't be concerned about the cost effectiveness of online education: online institutions will almost always be less expensive overall, and will often be more flexible in finding ways to help students finish in less time (thus reducing their overall tuition), such as transfer credit options, giving credit for previous academic experience and on-the-job training, and accelerated courses. Many students, particularly adult learners pursuing undergraduate degrees, find that they pay much less than the overall "sticker price" due to the credit they gain from a variety of sources during the admissions process.
The Cost of Online Education vs. Traditional Education
To assess the affordability of their various options, students should contact the financial aid offices of the schools they are considering to learn more about average aid packages, their eligibility for government aid, and tuition costs, and do a comparison of the final dollar amounts they would owe per semester. They should also do a full analysis of the overall cost of attendance for the institutions they are considering. It's important to determine whether students are expected to be additional, hidden fees relating to things like access to distance learning, technology, online libraries, or materials (for an online program) or student activity fees (for on-campus programs). These all must be factored in when calculating the cost of your education, and can add up quickly.
While the cost of a college degree can seem overwhelming, savvy students can, with a bit of research, find an option that fits within their budget in addition to meeting their academic needs - whether they ultimately choose to pursue online learning or traditional education.