Learning online offers many educational, financial benefits (Chron.com)

Students are finding out that online programs can be an affordable education path. Though not all online programs have less expensive tuition than traditional schools, the associated costs can be lower.

"The financial benefits of enrolling in online programs at universities is that students do not have to pay commuting expenses, may not need additional child care, and most likely will be able to continue in their current employment while in school as they can manage their own schedule and do their coursework around their families and work obligations," said Vickie S. Cook, Ph.D., director, Center for Online Learning, research and service/research associate professor,University of Illinois at Springfield.

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"There may be other costs (such as proctoring of exams) that are assessed for students. Students should always consider all facets of associated costs before enrolling in a specific program," Cook said.

Another savings is that sometimes online classes do not require students to buy textbooks, as all material used in the class is furnished online. This can result in a big savings, as textbooks can be expensive.

Many schools that offer online classes have seen the potential for reaching students who might not otherwise be able to attend classes. It might be a way of increasing the graduation rates of students in college.

"While development costs for online courses are often greater given technology and faculty training investments, many institutions with online programs make those investments because of their plan to scale their online programs. The ability to grow enrollments, without needing more residence halls, lecture classrooms or lab facilities, is certainly attractive for many institutions. The ability to strategically extend an institution's reach and influence, potentially globally, is also a consideration on some campuses," said Karen L. Pedersen, Ph.D., chief knowledge officer, Online Learning Consortium.

Pedersen said that whether an institution was launched as an online serving institution (e.g., Rio Salado College, Palmetto College) or delivers online programs as part of its institutional mission, providing online programs to place-bound and time-bound learners is critical given the ubiquitous reach of online learning today.

However, there may be some hidden costs for students with online learning. Some schools, for instance, charge higher tuition rates for those who live out of state.

Also, almost all online degree programs charge students a technology fee. These amounts can vary widely from school to school. This information can be found in a school's enrollment and tuition information.

One factor students should consider is online learning requires a reliable high-speed Internet connection. This may mean students have to upgrade an Internet plan.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated millions of dollars to help public libraries in areas of high concentrations of poverty provide quality access to computers and the Internet.

"It's critical communities commit the resources necessary to ensure all people have opportunities to benefit from technology," said Jill Nishi, program manager of the U.S. Libraries Initiative at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

What the data shows

Through a series of annual reports, a multi-year trend shows growth in online enrollments continues to rise (3.7 percent increase) outpacing overall higher education enrollments. Recent Federal data shows that 5,257,379 students are taking one or more distance education courses.

Students have sought online classes as a more affordable option for college, to avoid having large student loans that have to be repaid. This may be possible by taking online classes.

Before signing up for online classes, students should make sure they know exactly how it will affect them, in terms of money, and other class requirements.