With this variety of courses, programs and schools that offer online distance learning it is hard to give even a close estimate of the direct costs for taking online courses. They differ from school to school and you should not be surprised if some do not cost less than traditional courses. Typically you will be charged for tuition, some fees, course materials, and any equipment or supplies you are going to need in the course of your education.
Like with traditional higher education, in distance learning there is such thing as financial aid to help you cover these expenses. Again every school is different. You will have to contact the ones you are interested in to see what their specific financial aid policies and requirements are for students taking online courses. Additionally, the types and sources of financial aid can vary from school to school, but most financial aid programs fall into two categories:
- Grants and scholarships.
These are types of financial aid that you do not have to repay under normal circumstances. If you withdraw from a course or fail to maintain eligibility by successfully meeting certain criteria, you may be required to repay part or all of a grant or scholarship, depending on the particular rules applied to the award. Some grants and scholarships are based on financial need, while others are academic-based or awarded based on your personal skills and academic performance.
- Self-help financial aid.
It includes student loans and work-study programs. Loans are types of assistance that you have to repay after you complete your degree or if you leave school for a certain amount of time or longer. Generally, student loans have lower interest rates than other kinds of loans and some do not require interest-payments while you are in school. In most cases there is also a grace period. Work-study programs (in which the school helps you get a job so you can use the money to pay your education-related expenses) are not generally available to distance-learning students as they require the qualifying students to be on-campus.
If you intend to take advantage of the financial aid resources of the school that you will attend online, you should first contact it to get information of the possible options and about any forms that you must complete in order to apply. Most schools require you to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and submit it to the federal processor. Some require an additional, institutional application for aid. These usually collect information about financial resources that the FAFSA does not (home equity, certain types of property and investments, etc.), as well as information about your personal interests. School personnel use the information you provide to identify your level of financial need and the interest and achievement-based scholarships for which you qualify. You must be careful with deadlines as most universities have such regarding financial aid application. Generally, they should fall sometime in the spring of the year in which you plan to begin taking courses in the fall (there may be exceptions). You should contact the school directly to inquire about application deadlines.
There are several sources of financial aid, including governments (federal, state, and local), companies, non-profit organizations, individuals, and the schools and programs of study themselves. Here are some of the most common federal financial aid types:
- Federal Pell Grants.
These are awards to undergraduate students who have a certain level of financial need. The amount may reach $4,000 per year, depending on the level of funding that the overall program receives, as well as depending on your precise financial need, cost of attendance, and whether you are enrolled on a full or part-time basis.
Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (SEOG).
Federal SEOG awards are for undergraduate students who have the greatest financial need and the amount you receive depends on the school's awarding policies for the funds. The amount may reach $4,000.
- Federal Work Study.
This is a program in which the school helps students find jobs to earn money to pay for education-related expenses. Students enrolled in distance learning programs usually are not eligible for Federal Work-Study because of the need for the student to be able to work on-campus or near campus.
- Stafford and Direct Loans.
Money for low interest loans makes up the majority of federal financial aid. Federal Stafford Loans (also called Federal Family Education Loans) and Federal Direct Loans (also called William D. Ford Loans) are quite similar, except that the source of funding for a Stafford Loan is a private lender and the source for a Direct Loan is the U.S. government. If the school you are attending participates in the Direct Loan program, you apply for a loan through the school. If it participates in the Stafford Loan program, you apply for a loan through a bank, credit union, or other lender. A school can only participate in one of the two programs.