An online degree program can be a big investment. Luckily for 37-year-old northern Virginia resident Grant Clough, his employer offers workers $8,000 per year toward tuition reimbursement for those who choose to continue their education.
Clough, director of talent acquisition at AARP, initially considered an MBA program, possibly on campus. But he ultimately decided against pursuing another business degree, in part because he studied accounting as an undergraduate.
He then came across the online Master of Studies in Law at Wake Forest University, and it turned out that his employer would be covering nearly all his tuition. With the online format, he would also have more flexibility to study around his schedule.
“Working in human resources, it’s fairly a compliance heavy profession,” Clough says. “A lot of what we do revolves around laws and making sure that we process and plan around those. And so, this just kind of seemed like a natural fit.”
When choosing an online degree program, experts suggest consulting a school’s academic or enrollment advisers and other resources to learn more about different ways to cut costs.
Employer tuition reimbursement. Many online students work full time and want to accelerate or change their careers. As more and more institutions offer more degree programs online, it’s becoming increasingly common for companies and organizations to pay for some or all of their employees’ tuition, says Julie Uranis, vice president for online and strategic initiatives at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.
“Many years ago, employers were cautious when it came to online learning, but after hundreds of studies showing the efficacy of online learning, employers see financing the educational attainment of their employees for what it is: an investment that pays dividends,” she wrote in an email.
In a 2018 survey by Aslanian Market Research and Learning House, 23 percent of all past or current online undergraduate student respondents and 32 percent of online graduate student respondents said they used tuition reimbursement from their employer.
There are benefits for both the employees and the employers, experts say. Employees can boost their careers, and employers can keep motivated workers who apply what they learn directly to their jobs.
“Online degree programs provide students the flexibility to complete their degrees without too much disruption to their work lives,” Uranis says. “Investing in employees in online programs does not require the same sacrifices for employers it once did.”
To find out about tuition reimbursement at a job, experts suggest employees check with their human resources department for available opportunities.
Scholarships for online students. “Online students are often eligible for the same scholarships as students that participate in classes on campus,” Uranis says. “In fact, there may be additional scholarships for online or adult learners depending on the institution.”
As an example, she points to Eastern Kentucky University‘s College of Justice & Safety, which recently announced that nine students were each awarded $1,000 Distance Education Scholarships toward their online bachelor’s degree programs in occupational safety or online master’s programs in safety, security and emergency management.
Nelson Baker, dean of professional education at the Georgia Institute of Technology and UPCEA president-elect, says prospective or current online students should check whether scholarships they are interested in are only available to full-time students, as is sometimes the case, before applying. Many online students, Baker says, enroll part time to allow them to also focus on their careers.
To learn about scholarships, online students can look into opportunities at potential schools and perhaps organizations tied to their discipline, among other possible sources of funding.
Exams that test prior knowledge. Students may be able to take national tests to earn credits if they are already proficient in certain subject areas. One example is the widely accepted College-Level Examination Program, which tests students on what they already know. If they pass and pay a fee of $87, students receive college credit at institutions that accept the exam.
“A lot of students do take advantage of it, strictly because it is a cost savings,” Nancy Cervasio, senior director of student success at Arizona State University‘s ASU Online, says of this type of testing, adding these exams can be rigorous and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Another possible option is the DSST, a standardized exam that tests knowledge students have acquired outside of the classroom.
Stackable MOOC-based credentials. More schools are offering online degrees at significantly lower costs due to massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are classes created by companies such as edX and Coursera in collaboration with universities and are accessible to anyone with internet access.
Generally, MOOCs can be audited for free, but those who pay a fee can receive a certificate of completion and, in some cases, college credit. At certain schools, students can then progress into a full degree program at a significantly lower overall cost upon being formally admitted. Prospective students should note that the costs and processes associated with completing MOOC-based degrees vary widely, Uranis says.
For example, through Coursera, students can earn low-cost degrees such as an online MBA at the University of Illinois for about $22,000 total with fees, whereas an on-campus MBA would cost nearly $82,000 with fees for out-of-state students, and around $57,600 for in-state residents, also including campus fees.
An online Master of Computer and Information Technology from the University of Pennsylvania costs a total of $26,300 with fees, whereas the in-person offering can cost closer to $70,000.
MOOC-based degrees are just one example of stackable credentials, meaning students earn a series of smaller credentials that build up to a larger credential like a degree. Those looking to save money on tuition may consider other possible stackable credentials offered through schools, different online education companies or a combination thereof.
Taking some classes at a community college. Cervasio says another way online students at four-year schools can reduce the total cost of their online degree is by also taking certain classes at a community college.
“There are a lot of times where we refer students to community colleges, perhaps to take a class there, because it’s more appropriate for their learning for that particular course that they would go to a community college,” she says. “It costs them less, and they can transfer those credits into the university if they get an appropriate grade.”
Some universities also have articulation agreements with community colleges in what are often referred to as 2+2 programs. This means students complete the first two years of their undergraduate education either online or on campus at a local community college, then easily transfer all of those credits to the four-year institution and continue on to earn a bachelor’s degree either online or in person.
Competency-based education. In this model, students demonstrate mastery of specific competencies — measured by their knowledge and skills in a subject area — as opposed to earning credit based on time spent on coursework, which may reduce the cost of their degree, experts say. Students may be able to progress faster if they are more familiar or comfortable with the material.
As an example, Devon Cancilla, chief knowledge officer of the Online Learning Consortium, points to a licensed practical nurse or former medic in the army who wants to earn an online bachelor’s degree in nursing.
“If the student can demonstrate mastery of taking and interpreting a blood pressure reading, they would not be required to take the course teaching those skills, in theory saving the tuition associated with having to take that course,” Cancilla wrote in an email.
Textbook-free online courses. How these online classes work typically depends on the instructor and the course design. Uranis says some instructors may curate a list of readings to replace the need for textbooks in a class.
Some online programs depend largely on Open Educational Resources, or OERs, which are free course materials that universities make available to the public.
“They’re certainly gaining momentum,” Baker says of textbook-free online classes. “The cost of textbooks is something that everybody’s concerned about.”
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.
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