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Education reporters are always talking about how online education saves students piles of money on their schooling, but the details often get lost in the shuffle. We'll shed light on things by giving you some context for the facts and provide in-depth analysis of the forces that help online education courses save you money.
What is online education?
Online education can help motivated, self-supervising students get a degree or professional certification without needing to commit the amount of money and time demanded by traditional schooling. Classes are offered by dedicated online colleges, online extensions of traditional universities and third-party companies, and both paid-enrollment and massive open online courses (MOOCs) are available.
Online education courses have several advantages over the campus-based variety, such as increased access and scheduling flexibility, but the money you save might be the best perk of all.
Online education money-saver #1: Virtual textbooks
Ask any student at a traditional university -- the amount of money you spend on books is astounding. Since students in online education courses don't usually have ready access to a college bookstore, reading materials and lecture aids are often included in the price of the course.
Virtual textbooks are even making waves at brick-and-mortar universities. Administrators at certain schools, frustrated at the high costs of textbooks, worked out bulk deals for e-books that aim to save students as much as 80 percent of the cost of hardbound books.
Some students do prefer to read on paper rather than on a computer screen, but materials can typically be printed at home or a copy shop for a fraction of the cost of purchasing an ordinary textbook.
Online education money-saver #2: Lower operating costs
It costs a lot of money to run a college. Keeping resident students housed and fed, cutting the grass on the commons lawn, and keeping the lights on in the halls all add up to a fairly large chunk of expenditure that gets passed on to the student body as a portion of tuition and fees.
Online education classes greatly diffuse the costs of utilities, maintenance and other services that colleges ordinarily pay for. When universities save money on their own operations, they have the ability to offer lower-cost classes to a wider range of people.
Online education money-saver #3: Credit for experience
Some online education programs have recently embraced the idea of extending course credit to students who already know the material, irrespective to how they may have learned it. These Prior Learning Assessments, or PLAs, allow students to take examinations or build portfolios that excuse them from having to take a full-term class for credit.
PLA options offered at online schools are often priced at rates that save money as well as time. Students who succeed at their PLA assessments not only wind up paying less for their degree, they also move toward graduation faster than their less-experienced counterparts.
Other money-saving options are out there for students in online education programs, such as the free, open MOOCs that have been getting so much press lately. No matter who you are or what you want to study, there are probably at least a few ways that online education can save you money.
U.S. News & World Report, "Online Ed Offers Cost Savings to Adult Students," Katy Hopkins, October 11, 2012, http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2012/10/11/online-ed-offers-cost-savings-to-adult-students
Education News, "Will Online Learning Help Colleges Save Money?," Julia Lawrence, December 3, 2012, http://www.educationnews.org/online-schools/will-online-learning-help-colleges-save-money/
The Chronicle of Higher Education, "To Save Students Money, Colleges May Force a Switch to E-Textbooks," Jeffrey R. Young, October 24, 2010, http://chronicle.com/article/The-End-of-the-Textbook-as-We/125044/
Justin Boyle is a tutor, editor and designer who works in media production for an ecology non-profit.