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4 hidden costs of online degrees

Graduation fees and travel expenses can increase the cost of earning an online degree.

By Money Staff Jan 8, 2014 7:49PM

This post comes from Kelsey Sheehy at partner site U.S. News & World Report.


U.S. News & World Report on MSN MoneyCollege is expensive, and an online degree program is no exception.


Man with computer © Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./Blend Images/CorbisWhile virtual students skirt room and board fees, they are not immune from the other myriad fees and expenses associated with earning a degree. They are also not shielded from hefty tuition charges, says Patrick Partridge, chief of enrollment at Western Governors University.


"Tuition at online universities varies widely, from approximately the same cost as a public university to more than twice as much," says Partridge. "Higher cost does not necessarily mean higher quality at an online college, so be sure to understand all of the costs."


The total cost of an online program can present some surprises. Here are four expenses students should consider when budgeting for an online degree. 


1. Tiered tuition

No, tuition isn't hidden. In fact, schools are pretty transparent about what they charge per credit hour. What students may not realize is they could pay more if they earn their degree piecemeal – taking one class here, one class there.


DeVry University, for example, has a lower per-credit tuition rate for students taking seven or more credit hours a term, says Marcus Szymanoski with DeVry Education Group, the parent company of the school.


"It kills two birds with one stone. They might get through their degree program quicker, and it also saves a little bit of money," he says.


Students should also research whether an online program has separate tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state students. Daytona State College is one of several schools with higher tuition rates for online students who reside outside state lines.


The tuition difference can be steep, too. For the 2012-2013 school year, online in-state students at Daytona State paid just $92 per credit, compared with $560 per credit for out-of-state students.


2. Myriad fees

Almost all online degree programs charge a technology fee, but the amount of those fees can vary widely from school to school.


Students taking online courses at Brandman University pay a $40 tech fee for each session they enroll in, for example. At Malone University, the technology fee – dubbed the "online distributed learning tuition fee" – runs $120 per course.


Prospective students should also keep an eye out for assessment fees, graduation fees and yes, even parking fees when shopping around for an online degree program.


Brandman assesses a $100 degree conferral fee for graduating students, and online English and math courses at the university come with a $25 assessment fee, which covers placement exams used to put students in the appropriate course level.


3. Required travel

Not all virtual degree programs are 100 percent online. Some programs, particularly at the graduate school level, require students to complete an in-person residency.


This requirement caught Gonzaga University student Eric Doss off guard. The South Carolina resident is earning a master's in organizational leadership via an online program at the school in Washington state.


Gonzaga's program requires all online students to complete a three-day on-campus residency.


"I live in kind of a small town, and Gonzaga is in Spokane, which is also a small town, so that was three flights to get there, hotels and expenses and things like that," Doss says, estimating the cross-country trip set him back at least $1,000. While his company pays for his tuition and books, they do not reimburse for travel expenses, he says.


Though Gonzaga only requires one long weekend over the course of a two-year program, other universities require online students to travel to campus once every quarter or semester.


4. Recurring technology expenses

Ted Hessing traveled a lot for work, so he opted to take online courses while pursuing his master's in information technology degree at Rochester Institute of Technology. He later transferred to a brink-and-mortar program at the University of North Carolina—Charlotte, where he completed his master's, but returned to the online format to earn certification in Lean Six Sigma Black Belt through Villanova University.


The flexibility of the online programs allowed him to keep up with course work while on the road, but it also came with an unexpected cost – Wi-Fi charges.


While Hessing enjoyed an Internet connection at his home and office, he often had to pay for Wi-Fi access while on the road, he said via email.


Students could incur regular technology expenses even if they don't travel for work, since many online programs require cable or DSL Internet. The high-speed connection allows students to access course features such as streaming video lectures, but may mean students have to pay a higher monthly rate to upgrade their home Internet package.


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