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Decipher the True Cost of Your Online Degree

Devon Haynie

Deciding what to study is challenging enough for many online students. Yet after they settle on a degree, another hurdle awaits: finding out just how much it will cost.

Online students are generally confused by the cost of their program, according to a recent study by Aslanian Market Research and the Learning House, a company that helps colleges and universities develop and deliver online degree programs. While most students would like to know the total cost of their program, most universities prefer to price by credit hour, the report found.

For online undergraduates -- 80 percent of whom have earned credit elsewhere, the report finds -- that means they will need to do some math to know how much cash to set aside for school.

[Explore the 10 most expensive public online bachelor's programs.]

"It's hard to know the total cost when you go by credit hour because different universities require different numbers of credits for the same degree," says David Clinefelter, report co-author and chief academic officer at Learning House. "It's really hard for a student to comparison shop. You don't know how many of your credits will be accepted."

Fortunately for online students, determining the exact cost of a virtual program is doable, if challenging, experts say. All it takes is a significant amount of persistence.

Students looking to come up with an estimated cost for their education should realize that online schools don't go out of their way to make their costs visible, says Carol Aslanian, senior vice president of Aslanian Market Research and co-author of the report. Particularly at for-profit schools, officials want to get prospective students excited about the program and talk about the cost later, she says.

Lindsey Cunningham, an online student at Northeastern University, says she encountered that problem as she was looking into online graduate degrees in higher education administration.

[Explore why online education isn't always cheap.]

"A lot of the websites aren't exactly clear about what you need to pay for," says Cunningham, a Framingham, Massachusetts resident who works in marketing and media relations. She was confused about what fees she would have to pay, how much textbooks would cost and whether tuition costs might rise while she was in school.

Cunningham's solution: pick up the phone.

"I asked a lot of questions," she says. "I think you have to be proactive and touch base with financial services."

Kathy Hughes, an online undergraduate student at Pace University, showed similar initiative when she was comparing the duration and cost of possible online bachelor's programs.

"I went to every single tab on the whole Pace website, and I printed screen shots," says Hughes, a government public safety worker living on Long Island. "I had everything in front of me before I even contacted the school."

Hughes, who had completed an associate degree, also made sure she knew just how many credits Pace would accept. She says it's important for students to know that information before they enroll so they can compare the costs at different schools.

"Have a really good idea of what you've taken and what your grades were," says Hughes, who was able to begin her time at Pace as a junior due to the transfer credits the school accepted.

[Discover four hidden costs of online programs.]

Online students should also explore scholarships and other ways of reducing the cost of their education, says Marie Cini, provost of University of Maryland--University College. For students with work experience, testing out of a course or going through a portfolio assessment to get credit can be a great way to decrease cost, she says.

As for who to call to get answers about cost concerns, Cini says it depends on the school.

"Every university is really organized differently," she says. "There's no standard answer. You might have to do some digging."

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

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