Student's Guide to Finding the Best Value Online Colleges and Schools

With rising tuition rates, it can feel difficult to find affordable schools. Not all students qualify for need-based government loans, and a large student loan payment can reduce disposable income upon graduation. Plus, interest rates add up quickly. Fortunately, with more online programs becoming available each year, students can find affordable online colleges that match their career goals. This guide covers how to find affordable online colleges that provide a valuable education. It also covers financial aid opportunities for students, including loans, scholarships, and grants.


Online Schools and Distance
Learning Programs

To figure out what makes a school truly affordable, students should make a list of all the expenses they expect to incur during their time in the program, as well as the money they will save. They should also take into account financial aid opportunities.

To receive federal financial aid, students must attend a school accredited by a government-recognized accrediting agency. Though most reputable online schools hold accreditation, students should verify a school's accreditation status before committing to it.

It also pays to shop around for tuition rates. Some schools charge tuition by the credit, while others feature set tuition rates. For students who plan to attend programs full time or at an accelerated pace, set tuition rates may offer more savings.

How Much Does College Cost?

According to educationaldata.org, the average yearly cost of tuition, fees, room, and board was $30,500 for the 2019-20 academic school year. Below, we discuss the various components of a typical college budget.

Tuition

Tuition often accounts for the majority of a college budget. Many schools feature different tuition rates for out-of-state, in-state, and online students, with in-state and online students typically paying the lowest rates. Some schools may extend in-state tuition to students from neighboring states.

Attending a public school often costs less than attending a private school because public schools benefit from government funds. For this reason, classes at public schools tend to include a higher student-to-faculty ratio.

Room and Board

For students who choose to live on campus, room and board account for another large component of a college budget. Some colleges require freshmen to either live with a parent or on campus during their first year of college. However, this rule often does not apply to online learners. In fact, attending college online can help students save on living expenses. Learners can split rent with roommates and purchase groceries rather than a campus meal plan.

Campuses usually offer various tiers of dorm rooms that vary in cost. For example, a suite with a shared living area may cost more than a single room shared with a roommate. Likewise, colleges offer various dining plans. Students can select a plan that includes all three meals or just one meal per day.

Books, Fees and Technology

Prospective students often overlook miscellaneous costs like books, student activity fees, and required technology. For example, most programs require a personal laptop or computer and WiFi access, but some colleges provide computer labs for individuals who cannot afford to buy a computer.

Online programs often feature fewer fees than in-person programs. For example, online learners can avoid paying student activity and campus maintenance fees because they do not take advantage of on-campus resources. Lastly, college textbooks come with notoriously high prices. However, some online versions of textbooks may cost less. Students may also rent books or buy used books to save money.

Out-of-Pocket Expenses

Out-of-pocket expenses refer to the expenses or portion of expenses not covered by financial aid. Some scholarships, grants, and loans place stipulations on how students can use the funds. These stipulations require students to use their financial aid for expenses necessary for them to attend college, such as books and housing.

Students who want to graduate with minimal debt may take on more out-of-pocket expenses. Attending school on a part-time basis can make this easier to accomplish since most schools charge tuition on a per-credit basis.

The Cost of Incompletion

If students cannot successfully complete a course, but they currently possess a passing grade, some schools allow them to receive an incomplete grade. This option does not negatively impact a student's GPA. However, many schools still charge students for incomplete classes that do not count for college credit.

Students can avoid earning an incomplete by ensuring their schedules give them enough time to successfully complete their courses. Certain online colleges offer a grace period where students can drop a course for a refund, so students should add these dates to their calendars and make decisions beforehand.

Tuition Resources
College Cost Calculator

If a student is more than a year or two away from college, tuition prices could be significantly more than today’s published prices. Use this calculator from Sallie Mae to find out what to expect for future tuition costs.

The College Board's Net Price Calculator

Maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, this website is a clearinghouse of information regarding college prices. You can find out the average cost for specific degree programs, learn which institutions have the highest and lowest tuition and discover which colleges have runaway tuition rates.

My College Planning Team

Although not all the services offered by My College Planning Team are free, the site’s blog provides an abundance of useful information regarding college affordability. Chicago-area residents can also attend free workshops hosted by the firm.

While we always encourage families to start saving as early as possible, it is never too late. There are always things you can do to save money. -Debby Hohler, spokesperson for Upromise

Types of Financial Aid

Even students who attend affordable online colleges can benefit from financial aid. Students can pursue six main types of financial aid: scholarships, grants, fellowships, loans, work-study programs, and employer-sponsored programs. We discuss these types of aid below.

Scholarships

Many schools, foundations, nonprofits, and private companies award scholarship funds to students based on factors like academic merit, field of study, and/or identity. Scholarships can feature competitive applicant pools, so students should apply for several or focus their search on awards with limited applicant pools. For example, applying for scholarships reserved exclusively for one major can increase a student's chances of receiving funds.

Most scholarship applications require students to submit their transcripts, an essay, and multiple recommendation letters. Many scholarships only award funds to learners who attend accredited schools, and renewable scholarships may require students to maintain a minimum GPA.

Grants

Similarly to scholarships, grants typically do not require repayment. While scholarships often feature academic requirements, like a minimum GPA, grants typically feature need-based requirements.

Students must submit the FAFSA to qualify for federal grants. This application requires tax information. Dependents applying for a grant must submit their guardian's tax information. Graduate students may also receive grants from private organizations for a specific purpose, like completing a research project.

Fellowships

Colleges and universities typically offer fellowships to graduate students, but some schools may provide fellowships to undergraduate learners too. A fellowship allows students to receive either discounted tuition or payment in exchange for work or research related to their majors.

Some fellowships require graduate students to teach a course to undergraduate students, while others may require students to work on a research project associated with the university. Some schools may refer to a fellowship as a graduate assistantship.

Loans

Loans require repayment, so students should pursue other types of financial aid before loans. Federal loans typically offer better interest rates and repayment plans than private loans. Students can apply for federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans by submitting the FAFSA.

Subsidized loans do not require students to pay interest while they are in school. Unsubsidized loans begin accumulating interest immediately. However, all federal loans give students a six-month grace period after graduation before requiring payments.

Learners can also apply for loans from banks and private companies. These loans often require higher interest rates than federal loans. They may also require a credit check and/or a cosigner.

Work Study

During work-study programs, students complete work for a university in exchange for reduced tuition or credit toward tuition. Students who engage in work-study programs often work in front desk positions at a university facility, like a student union center, library, or recreation center.

Work-study students typically must spend their earnings on education costs, like books and housing. The federal government sponsors some work-study programs. To qualify for a federally funded work-study program, individuals must fill out the FAFSA.

Employer-Sponsored Programs

Students may qualify for employer-sponsored education funds. Many companies set aside money for full-time employees who want to further their education in a field that will benefit the business. These programs may cover some or all of a student's education costs.

Certain employer-sponsored programs require students to commit to working for the company for a set number of years after graduation. Additionally, some employers may only pay for students to attend approved programs at particular schools.

Tips for Making Online College Affordable

Students can avoid high debt and out-of-pocket expenses by following a few tips. For starters, researching affordable online colleges and comparing tuition rates and financial aid packages can save students money. Prospective learners should also research whether an online school offers in-state tuition rates to distance learners.

Choosing an online college can also help students save money on transportation costs and on-campus fees. Flexible online learning formats also make it easier for students to maintain a job during their studies. Learners can further reduce their expenses by looking into tax credits, such as the American Opportunity Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit.

Students should also research scholarship opportunities during every year that they're in school. Some organizations reserve scholarships for incoming freshmen or juniors and seniors. Focusing a scholarship search on renewable scholarships rather than one-time scholarships can also help students save money.

Students can avoid paying unnecessary fees by ensuring that they drop classes before refund deadlines. Studying hard to avoid failing grades also helps learners save money by preventing failed classes that do not count toward credit. Taking advantage of free online learning resources and on-campus tutoring centers can help ensure student success.

Lastly, learners should keep in mind that rising tuition costs can impact the cost of college. Most universities raise tuition on a yearly basis, so students can save money by finishing school as soon as they can.

Financial Aid Resources:

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