It's often said that online education can be cheaper than a traditional college setting, with many pundits predicting a future where disruptive technology helps make college affordable.
But while Silicon Valley hasn't revolutionized education yet, the number of students taking advantage of online education programs is growing rapidly. The Center for American Progress predicts that 50 percent of students in 2014 will take at least one online course. And while cost is a major factor to keep in mind when evaluating online education programs, the worth of a program is likely a combination of cost and the success of its graduates.
Because online programs can be flexible in terms of location and time frame, many students who find themselves shut out of higher education because they cannot dedicate the time or money for full-time study at a physical campus for four or more years may use this route to access an education that would otherwise be unattainable.
For example, many students may choose an online program because it does not require them to relocate and they will save by not spending as much on room and board. And many choose the online route simply because they are not "traditional" students (according to this estimate, only about 15 to 18 percent of students fit that mold) and online programs allow them to tailor course time to their schedules. For example, you may be able to work full time while earning your degree—which also may mean you won't have to borrow as much to pay for it.
Even if you may save on tangible costs, evaluate other factors carefully as well. For example, research whether a particular program is respected in your chosen field. When you graduate, will you have opened doors to the employment and salary that you'd hoped? If you've earned your master's degree in public affairs through an online program offered by Indiana University, for example, you probably have. But other programs may not yield the same results.
Online programs are administered by both nonprofit and for-profit institutions, and these institutions may be long-standing and reputable or quite the opposite. Make sure you find the right fit for your needs.
Research is crucial—and don't rely only on statistics offered by the programs' recruiting offices. Because whether you're borrowing, paying from your own pocket, or investing only time and effort, you want a return on that investment that leaves you in a better place (and with the ability to pay off any loans you've borrowed).
With regard to loans, the same general rules apply when borrowing to pay for an online program. Federal student loans come with many borrower protections, including fixed interest rates, default-aversion measures like deferments, forbearances, and income-driven repayment plans, as well as different forgiveness programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Private loans do not.
If your program is eligible for federal student aid, consider those options first before turning to private loans. If your program is not eligible for federal student aid, this may be a red flag indicating high cohort default rates, and may be reason to choose a different program.
Regardless of what type of education program you are evaluating, remember that you have your own unique set of circumstances and need to figure out what works best for you. Online programs may be more flexible and allow you to tailor your education to those personal circumstances. But always consider whether you will earn what you are working for and the worth of your education, and always consider the safest way to pay for that education.
To learn more about federal options that can help you manage your student loans, register to attend a free webinar and read our new E-book, "Take Control of Your Future." And to stay up to date with student debt news and tips, follow us on Twitter (use #studentdebthelp).
Radhika Singh Miller is a program manager for Educational Debt Relief and Outreach at Equal Justice Works. She has served on student loan committees in the Department of Education's negotiated rulemaking focusing on the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) and other debt relief initiatives. Radhika graduated from Loyola Law School Los Angeles. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, she was a staff attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice, focusing on constitutional and civil rights litigation and advocacy.