Today, many prospective students are foregoing traditional, on-campus learning in favor of online college education. However, there are distinct financial benefits and disadvantages associated with both of these educational models.

For the majority of students, tuition costs are the most important consideration. As U.S. News & World Report contributor Greg Scott Neuman recently wrote, the cost of e-learning is typically on par with that of a traditional campus – roughly $250-$300 per credit hour. However, he notes that the cost of attending an accredited online university (on average, $7,500 per year) is far less than tuition fees faced by out-of-state students (about $12,000 per year) or those who enroll at a private college (about $27,000 per year). He adds that, while unaccredited schools tend to be much cheaper, these institutions hurt students in the long-term; many students are unable to transfer credits to other colleges, while others have found that employers are less likely to hire alumni of a school that lacks accreditation.

In addition to annual tuition prices, traditional college students must tackle extraneous costs like dorm accommodations and meal plans – and according to a report by contributor Kim Clark the cost of these services has increased dramatically over the past 10 years. In 2000, the average price of dorm accommodations and a full meal plan was  $6,220; by the 2010-11 academic year, that amount had reached $8,540. In addition, The College Board estimates the average on-campus student spends $4,200 every year on miscellaneous expenses like textbooks and course materials, parking and laundry. On the other hand, online students must pay rent and buy their own food; an individual who pays $600 per month for rent and spends roughly $100 per week on groceries will accrue an annual debt of $12,400 – merely $340 less per year than the average campus resident.

One factor that only impacts traditional college students is commuting. As noted by Carole Moore of Bankrate.com, commuting affects both on- and off-campus students at traditional colleges. At the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, for instance, the average student spends more than $1,400 every year on commuting and public transportation costs. With the exception of occasional campus visits mandated by most online programs, e-learners work and study using their home computer – thereby negating any commuting or public transportation fees they might incur while enrolled at a brick-and-mortar university.

Prospective students should also weigh costs and benefits associated with long-term career impacts. E-courses might be the cheaper option for students, but most employers continue to view traditional degrees more favorably than online programs. For an April 2012 report, Ann Whittaker of Deseret News examined MBA programs. While traditional students paid much more to earn their MBAs, they also reported much higher wage increases than their online counterparts. In addition to wage disparity, online students have also reported lower levels of satisfaction with career outcomes.

At Capella University, one of the leading online MBA providers, 51% of graduates reported they were satisfied with their “career growth potential”, while 63% found their salary and benefits acceptable after graduation. Although it is not necessarily quantifiable, one final consideration for students is that of the ‘college experience.’ Traditional campuses offer students an environment in which they are able to communicate and exchange ideas with peers and faculty members; online course modules, on the other hand, typically involve less interaction and more one-sided discussion.

While e-learners have an easier time juggling other major commitments (such as families or full-time jobs), traditional students are fully immersed in the academic experience – and as Conor Friederstorf of The Atlantic recently argued, the demand for this experience will likely sustain in the age of online education. “The economics of higher education certainly point toward a future where a lot of young people take advantage of distance learning to get a much cheaper education,” he writes. “But even if online learning becomes the norm, won’t the desires for both amenities and ‘the college experience’ persist?” Online education has risen dramatically in recent years, though many experts still argue that traditional schools offer more for students.  For most recession-era students, the choice comes down to finances – and each one must consider all of these economic factors to determine his or her most financially viable college option.

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