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It can be exceptionally difficult to do a side by side cost comparison for any two college programs, and this becomes even more challenging when attempting to compare online programs to programs offered on campus. Is it really cheaper to take a class or earn a degree online than it is through a traditional program? Typically, yes. However, you need to do your homework and find out what hidden fees and what hidden tradeoffs there are for any program.


First, let’s look at fees. Bloomberg reports that traditional colleges have more than doubled fees since 2000. This is part of a larger trend that has been ongoing for the past 35 years. In many ways, the fees are reasonable considering what the campus offers. However, fees are charged to all students regardless of whether or not the student will ever have the opportunity to use those services.

These fees can seem especially egregious if you don’t live on campus or if you have work or family commitments that prevent you from participating much in campus life. This is also what makes online programs an attractive option for many students. While fees can be significantly lower for online programs, online programs are not free from them. The total can result in sticker shock when you receive your bill. Make sure to check the cost of both tuition and the total amount of fees to be applied before you decide on a program.

Program Amenities

Directly related to fees are program amenities. While online programs generally charge lower and fewer fees than traditional programs, this also means that the program may not have the amenities that you consider part of the college experience. Will you have access to the scope of materials that you need to pursue your academic interests in an online program? Also, college is more than just class. If things like travel abroad, campus organizations or internship opportunities are important to you, it may be worth paying slightly higher fees for a program instead of simply going with the least expensive option.

Scholarships and Grants

A final important cost consideration is scholarships and grants. Although the number of scholarships and grants available for online programs is growing daily, the number is still relatively small compared to those for on campus programs. Depending on the size of the scholarship, this can skew costs significantly. Check the program at your school to see what is available. If your GPA, background or chosen major will likely lead to receiving extra financial support, this can greatly lower the total cost of your education.

Comparing tuition costs is relatively simple. However, doing so will not provide you with the true cost of your online or traditional program. While taking a hard look at the bottom line can seem to take away some of the excitement of attending college, it can keep you from getting in over your head financially and better prepare you for life after college.