Two-Year Colleges: Cheapest Path to an Online Degree
When it comes to cost, non-profit versus for-profit is only part of the online college equation. Students looking for a quality program for cheap should also consider institutional level. Two-year colleges with distance learning options, which includes online community colleges and junior colleges, offer a pair of distinct advantages not always found at four-year universities:
Cheaper tuition rates: Two-year schools often cost far less than their four-year counterparts. These more cost- and community-friendly institutions keep tuition lower to ensure a wider variety of students can afford a degree. Many students also use two-year colleges to earn as many pre-requisites as possible before transferring to a university – a much cheaper two-year option.
Targeted learning: Two-year colleges allow students to earn online associate degrees, certificates and diplomas in very specific areas. For example, a medical assistant may need special training in medical coding in order to qualify for promotion.
One student’s idea of a cheap online college may be different from another’s. Each college hopeful has a unique set of monetary needs that shape what he or she can and can’t afford. Yet in general, the cheapest online colleges provide their students with quality distance learning opportunities at an affordable price. A great place to start researching such colleges is by getting a better handle on their cost structures.
A Closer Look at Cost
On the surface, cost may seem simple. If tuition at College A is more than tuition at College B, then College B is cheaper, right? Not necessarily, especially with distance learning. In addition to standard tuition and fee differences between colleges, students need to think about secondary costs that may seem less important, but that surely contribute to the bottom line. Here’s a look at the entire cost spectrum when it comes to online education.
Understanding Tuition & Fees
Tuition serves as the primary cost of a college education, campus or online. Post-secondary institutions usually set tuition rates by credit and academic period. For example, a university may charge $200 per credit to attend graduate school for a full semester. Therefore, if a student takes 10 credits per semester, that’s $2,000 per semester and $4,000 per year.
Of course, certain elements influence the price of tuition for each student. Residency, for instance, can dictate whether someone pays in-state tuition or out-of-state tuition. Many state colleges and universities require applicants to live in the same state as the institution for a minimum of six months before enrollment to qualify for the cheaper in-state rate. Applicants who moved to the state to attend the college specifically may need to pay the out-of-state amount. Some schools with distance learning alternatives allow students to take online programs and pay in-state tuition – a big money saver. Others, however, charge all students the same amount regardless of where they live.
While not as hefty as tuition, fees can add up. Some college bills include charges for lab use, library access, parking, health insurance and, when the time comes, graduation. Although both campus and online programs come with fees, they can differ rather significantly. For example, a parking pass for a campus-based student can run up to $500 per year, something an online student won’t need to pay. In contrast, many online programs charge technology fees for every single class, no matter the subject, which can reach into the triple digits. Tech fees for campus students are usually reserved for tech-oriented courses. Potential fees to watch out for with online learning include:
- Technology fees
- Assessment fees (English and math) to gauge aptitude before enrollment
- Graduation fees
- Travel fees (hybrid programs, or online programs at the graduate level, may require campus visits at the student’s expense)
Some students may also avoid certain fees by learning remotely. The parking pass is the most ready example, but others include computer fees, campus/service fees and recreation/activity fees. Always keep in mind that when researching programs and courses, account for all fees that could occur from day one to commencement. It’s always good to overestimate.
Room & Board
Students enrolled in campus-based programs often live in a dormitory – at least during their first year or two. According to The College Board, the cost of on-campus housing ranged from $9,500 to $10,830 in 2013, depending on the type of college (public or private) and the package chosen by the student. Online learning, however, allows students to select from a wider variety of living options, including room and board farther away from campus and/or in a place with cheaper rent and amenities.
Others Costs to Consider
It’s also important to account for the often-overlooked costs that can creep up and bite you in the wallet. For campus commuters, this means one or more travel-related expenses, including car maintenance, gas and tolls. For online learners, heftier Internet bills, Skype and other tech-based education solutions could mean less money for leisure time. The good news is, although colleges serve as the source of many of these costs, they also provide myriad ways for students to save.
Online College on the Cheap: Ways to Save
Many students qualify for some sort of financial assistance to help pay for college. Student loans are the most popular, but need to be paid back with interest after the student leaves school – with diploma in hand or not. One of the best ways to defray college costs lies in funding that doesn’t require payback during or after program completion. The following “ways to pay” give students (and parents) a chance to make the college experience manageable when it comes to money.
Scholarships: Numerous types of scholarships exist. Each year college students receive money for tuition based on academics, athletics, family history, race, gender and more. Even those who may not qualify for these traditional scholarships can (and should!) research creative scholarships to see what’s out there. Private companies, research firms, non-profits and other organizations offer scholarships for things as offbeat as being left-handed or having the best duck call.
Grants: Grants are another type of financial aid award that does not have to be repaid. Federal grants, such as the Pell Grant, are awarded based on need. States and college also award student grants. There are even career-specific grants, such as the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant, which provides up to $4,000 to students who agree to teach in low-income school districts upon graduation.
Assistantships: This form of financial agreement usually occurs at the graduate level. Students work for a professor (grading papers or running discussion groups or labs) in exchange for discounted tuition. Some assistantships allow students to apply their earnings to housing, fees or any other way they see fit.
In addition to big-ticket money items, there’s a ton of ways students (and parents) can make college cheaper. Some may be common sense, but others could be difference makers. Ways to save a little hard-earned cash include:
Buying or borrowing used textbooks: Amazon has a strong collection of used books, and if you’re a Prime member, some can be borrowed at no additional cost. And if you’re a history major, some texts may be available online for free.
Eat in: Seems easy, but grabbing coffee and a bagel in the morning and a sandwich in the afternoon adds up. Take your breakfast and lunch as much as you can.
Cheap transportation: If you have a bike, use it. Live near a bus line? Get a pass. Taking an online program? You don’t need to go anywhere.
Take advantage of student discounts: Many businesses on or around a campus will give ANY college student a discount. If you’re an online student, it still applies. See which restaurants, department stores and other business help students save.
Making a college education cheaper should be the goal of every student. No one wants to pay more than required. Yet when researching cheap online colleges, or even campus-focused colleges, no education should come at the expense of quality.
The Importance of Quality
Cost is important, but it isn’t everything. A cheap college or university carries zero academic and professional value without quality programs for students. But how do students and parents know an institution has sufficient quality standards? It starts with accreditation, but other factors should be weighed, as well. Learn what to look for to ensure all colleges on the short list have the right cost and quality balance.
Accreditation: The first step to assessing the quality of an online college or program is checking its accreditation. Accreditation means that an independent agency endorsed by the Department of Education has thoroughly vetted a college and/or program for academic excellence, faculty credentials, student support, available resources and more. Earning full accreditation can take years to achieve, and usually entails multiple visits to an institution. For a complete look at the types of accreditation and how the process works, visit our new, expert-driven online guide to college accreditation.
Graduation rates: If you start a degree program, you want to finish it. Dropping out can mean a huge loss of time and financial investment. If an online college has a high graduation rate, it often means they support their students and provide top-notch education and career services. Low rates can be a huge red flag. It could mean many things, among them that students can’t get the courses they need to complete their degree, that the online classes are falling below what students expected, that students are discovering the online school is actually a degree mill pumping out useless diplomas, and more.
Reputation with employers: Getting a job is a main reason students pursue a degree. Knowing a school’s reputation with employers can help you gauge how well you might do in the job market after graduation, and how much you might earn. However, it is also an indication of the value of the degree and how much students learn. If eager students are failing in the workplace time and time again, it could be a reflection of the online program, not of the students themselves. Or it could be an indication that students are allowed into the program too readily and are given a great amount of leniency during the course. Remember: Just because a course or program is online, or just because it is an inexpensive option, doesn’t mean that the quality should be any less than in-person classes.