5 Financial Questions to Ask Before Getting an Online Degree

Students should find out about costs for the entire program – and what happens to financial aid if studies are interrupted.​

pic1If you’re not making progress toward your online degree, talk to a financial aid counselor, says one expert.


Online students have many of the same cost, financial aid and student loan questions​ as their counterparts attending brick-and-mortar schools.

But some unique money questions may arise as well.

“There are certainly a few regulations that online students should understand going into the process, given that so many of them are working adults, who attend college part-time,” said Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, in an email.

For example, enrolling in fewer than six credits or taking a semester or two off may affect aid or trigger loan repayment, says Aldridge.

Other questions may arise about how the program handles financial aid or transfers academic credits.

Below are five money questions that students should ask before pursuing an online degree.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Deana Coady, vice president of student financial aid for Apollo Education Group Inc., parent company of Western International University and University of Phoenix

What is this degree going to cost me, and how am I going to pay for it?
If you’re speaking with a school representative who cannot clearly give you the cost of the program, I’d suggest hanging up the phone. And don’t just think about cost over one year. You want to look at the entire experience as you would with a home or a car. Understand what it’ll cost you over the life of that program and think of loans as an investment.

Betty Vu, director of MBA and MPA programs, California State University—Dominguez Hills

How does the financial aid process work within the program? At some schools the online programs are not a very big component, so they might not have specific financial aid processes that cater to those online programs.

At my school, online programs are not a huge component, so I warn students that their financial aid disbursement is not going to go by the academic calendar. My online program runs on a quarterly system, but the university runs on a semester system.

So, my students can start school in June but the university doesn’t start until August and they don’t disburse financial aid funds until then. That might be a deal-breaker for some students.

Vicky Phillips, 
founder, GetEducated.com

Does your chosen school maintain scholarship programs just for older online degree seekers? 
Look for scholarships just for online degree seekers or adult students. But be wary of Internet ads that promise scholarships for studying online but that only let students use these scholarships at one school or at a group of specific for-profit colleges.

These “scholarship programs” are really advertisements paid for by the limited schools listed on the application forms. These programs are designed to get your name and contact data which is then sold for X amount to the ad client schools.

The schools listed on these programs pay Internet sites upwards of $100 for each student “lead” – that’s the ad term for your contact data – the sites are able to send to their telephone call or recruitment centers. Filling out one of these forms is a great way to end up on the relentless end of a telemarketing loop or email spam operation.

​Meg Benke, past president of the Online Learning Consortium and professor at SUNY—Empire State College

What happens if I need to take a break for an emergency? 
Ask what happens if you get out of step and need to move forward. And leave room in your schedule, so that when life happens, you can catch up. Recognize and give yourself room as a parent or someone caring for an elderly family member, whatever the circumstances. If you’re not making progress, you should immediately get in touch with the financial aid office or student services office. Financial aid has complicated regulations, and it takes a professional to help interpret them.

If you’re not making progress toward your online degree, talk to a financial aid counselor, says one expert.

Cheryl Storie, associate vice president for financial aid, University of Maryland University College

What are the real, fixed costs of this online program? Regulations governing federal financial aid require that schools include tuition and fees, room and board, books, transportation, personal and miscellaneous expenses in their cost of attendance, even though the majority of these costs don’t apply for online institutions.

So, you may be able to borrow to cover room and board, even though the institution doesn’t have dormitories, or transportation, even though you’re attending class online in your living room. You run the risk of over-borrowing, taking out $25,000 thinking that it covers a year’s worth of education, when tuition may have only cost $5,000 or $7,000. It’s not inaccurate, but it’s confusing. ​

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.

pic3Susannah Snider is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering paying for college and graduate school. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at ssnider@usnews.com.


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