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Is Getting an Online Degree Cheaper Than the Traditional Route?

written by: •edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 11/6/2014

You don't need to be in a classroom any longer to educate yourself and get a degree. One reason online education is attractive is that it should be cheaper. Subtracting the buildings and campus while multiplying the reach of one teacher should equal savings for the student. Is this truly the case?

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    Your State School May Be Cheaper

    Is Studying Online Cheaper than Studying in Class? US News and World Report recently compared 300 ranked colleges. They found in-state tuition to earn a bachelor's degree on-campus averaged $243 per credit. The same education online cost $277 per credit. The reason? Online education programs are still developing.

    Teaching online is not the same as teaching face-to-face. Colleges are retraining their teachers to operate in the digital classroom. They are buying large amounts of new technology to get in the game. They are inventing new material and methods. Round-the-clock technical support must be added to assist online students.

    A 2013 study performed by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities agrees with the findings of US News. They discovered that over 60% of the 400 schools studied charged the same for online courses as they did for in-person ones. Thirty-six percent charged more.

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    You Get What You Pay For

    Institutions that operate strictly as online schools can deliver a better dollar-to-credit ratio. Penn Foster, formerly known as International Correspondence Schools, has been doing distance learning since 1890. By spending only 7 percent on faculty, as opposed to 70 to 80 percent, it can charge only $79 per credit.

    Yet Penn Foster teachers are not full-time, tenure-track professors. They have 10 times as many students as a traditional teacher. The credits are not always transferable. Students complain about a robotic experience when they can correspond with faculty.

    Like anything, a business that mass-produces products at a cheap price does not deliver quality like a business that makes things carefully one at a time.

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    You Went Where?

    Consider the name on the school as well as the name of your degree. Many new for-profit schools are popping up to compete with the old guard of education. Future employers will value the reputation of your school as much if not more than the things you studied.

    What is the difference between a Bachelor of Science from Harvard and the same degree from Somewhere-out-there State? The Harvard degree opens doors, gets you connected to powerful people and makes you part of an alumni group that will look after one another.

    A jaded opinion of higher education states that what you learn in school does not matter at all. Students don't go to college to learn. They go to get away from their parents and have fun. If they get good grades, it's because they studied just enough and at the right times to pass a test. Term papers and final exams are not real life.

    That opinion would point out Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who all dropped out of college to become filthy rich technology pioneers. It would point you to Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, who never went to film school. They learned by watching and doing.

    If you spend $50,000 a year on a big-name education, do it because you will be part of that club forever. Employers don't care what you learned at Princeton. They assume that if you are smart enough to get in and graduate, you're smart enough to learn the job they hired you to do.

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    What If It's the Only Way?

    While a quality online education won't be significantly cheaper than a brick-and-mortar one, it does have some advantages. First is location. You can study anywhere. Not everyone is 18 with a college fund. Some folks have to go to work and raise kids. Learning from your kitchen table may be the best place for you.

    Second is time. You probably don't operate on college time. You study late and on the weekends. You want a four year degree in three years or six. You earn credits in bursts with stretches of inactivity.

    For many reasons, online learning is the only way for many non-traditional college students. Higher education is not only for the young anymore.

    While tuition costs are similar, online learning may save you money in other ways. You won't need to pay for room and board. You won't commute. You don't need to change your lifestyle at all. Other than access to a good computer, you need very little to pursue your degree.

    For some, the college atmosphere is conducive to learning. The ivy covered buildings, the quads filled with bright curious faces and the monumental libraries all inspire the hungry brain. For others, college is frat parties, pep rallies, gossip and athletes who never go to class. The best environment for learning is at home.

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    Do You Really Need a Degree?

    The last key to saving money on an education is deciding whether to pay for it at all. The Khan Academy, Coursera and a growing multitude of other sources deliver college-quality classes for free. Many of MITs lectures are available free through OpenCourseWare. Learning is about asking questions and finding answers, not hiring a school to teach you.

    So ask yourself whether you need to learn things or you need a degree. Some opportunities are only open to you with a bachelor's, master's or beyond. Even better for you if the diploma bears a prestigious name.

    Maybe you're being held back by something you don't understand. Want to open your own business but don't know accounting? Have a great idea but can't market it? You might be able to gain solutions to your problems with effort and curiosity at no charge.