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Are Online Classes Cheaper? The Cost of Remote Learning

From being relegated to the margins of the education sphere, online learning has quickly become a way of life for many these days. This puts into question a pretty big aspect of getting a college degree. That is, are online college classes cheaper than brick-and-mortar university classes?

If there is one thing we’re familiar with, it’s how astronomically expensive a college degree can be. The financial strain on families and students in earning an education can be a considerable factor in demotivating students from pursuing higher education.

So, are online classes cheaper than traditional classes? The answer isn’t so clear-cut. That’s because comparing the value of online college classes from traditional in-person courses is a discussion that almost always ends up being nuanced and dependent on your experience. 

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While it may seem that nearly all online schools or online degree programs are cheaper, that can be deceptive. Let’s dive in a little more. 

For-Profit Colleges

While many colleges and universities have adapted to the times by offering online programs, it wasn’t always that way. Before the mass adoption of online classes at local community colleges, public universities, and state universities, there were only strictly online colleges. These institutions paved the way for what we now experience at scale. 

For-profit colleges are schools run by private businesses for, you guessed it, a healthy profit. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t focus on quality education for aspiring learners. However, because of its business model, for-profit colleges have always been the object of skepticism and outright criticism. 

A case in point: reports after reports cite the skyrocketing cost of college and the student debt that comes with it. This year, 54 percent of American students are collectively saddled with a $1.6 trillion student debt

If we do the math, that means an average college student owes $37,500, and the number is expected to grow. As the uproar for the ballooning cost of education has become louder, colleges have started promising lower costs and higher flexibility. The delivery of such, however, is yet to be seen. 

Another criticism comes from the completion rate. At present, the completion rate for for-profit colleges and universities are noticeably lower than the rates of completion of both public and private non-profit institutions. These criticisms have had an immense impact on how we approach online learning and how schools offer their curricula. 

A Strain on the School and the Student

Something that may not be in the student’s mind during the application process is the strain that schools are experiencing from offering online courses. Hosting detailed, nuanced, and intricate online programs on online platforms cost money and, yes, even human resources.

Very rarely does an online learning experience find itself devoid of bugs, glitches, or other software or bandwidth issues. This has led to schools investing heavily in technologies and support staff to ensure that their online platform is up and running at all times. 

This is especially apparent during the onslaught of the pandemic which has forced thousands of schools worldwide to move their instruction online. The unprecedented event has not spared even those that never meant to leave the confines of a traditional college classroom. 

The consequences have indeed been dire. After all, the process doesn’t end with uploading materials and assignments online. Universities have had to pour considerable time and money into creating digitized versions of nearly every course. 

Fees, Financial Aid, and More

It’s reasonably apparent that online students won’t have to cough up their life savings to pay for fees that were otherwise required by in-person programs. However, some colleges can be cagey about where they charge fees. 

This makes it difficult to determine whether learning online nixes those fees entirely. Since the world of academia is in a state of flux, we probably won’t know the full extent of how this has affected the way brick-and-mortar universities operate. 

The pandemic has also put both students and colleges in awkward positions. Now that a lot of classes are online, shouldn’t they be offered at lower prices? This was a heated topic that stirred the education sector, with Ivy League schools such as Harvard finding themselves at the eye of the storm. If students aren’t receiving the full campus experience, why should students keep paying exorbitant tuition prices? 

Of course, there is still Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) available. If you are an in-state student, online courses and degree programs may very well be significantly cheaper than if you were traveling across America. 

So, Are Online College Classes Cheaper?

Woman in a striped t-shirt sitting at an outside table with her laptop, looking behind her
Online learning can be a great way for college students to save money.

Well, kind of. It depends.

Depending on which online course and degree program you choose, it can be significantly cheaper than the traditional college experience. However, it also boils down to a few other factors. 

Does learning online gel with your learning style? Do you enjoy learning in a silo or is a more engaged environment up your alley? What about your available learning materials? While the cost of attendance bears a huge value on the mode of education that you should opt for, these considerations will affect your real education ROI in the long run. 

Overall, it mostly depends on what school you attend. Some colleges and universities may actually charge more for online courses as a part of a degree program. Do some more exploring of your desired online degree programs

What classes do they offer? Look up some of the school’s professors and check whether they teach quality courses that are well worth the money. Even more, read alumni reviews and blogs about the school you’re considering.  

Whether online courses are cheaper or not, online learning is a handy and viable way to earn a degree. Online programs are also a great way to jump back into the world of higher learning, even if you took a break. Lastly, remember that cheaper may not necessarily mean better. Conversely, expensive may not necessarily equal higher quality. 

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