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Online Learning on a Budget

shutterstock_143045899There’s no denying the price of higher education is skyrocketing and student debt is at unprecedented levels. Yet, going back to school can still mean lower unemployment and higher wages.

One of my pet peeves is the assumption that online learning is a cheaper alternative to traditional programs. Sure, no dorm fees or meal plans, but everyone has living expenses, and the technology requirements of an online program can really add up. Even students who choose online options with lower tuition rates may find unexpected expenses related to computers, textbooks, Internet service, etc.

Online education allows the convenience of flexible scheduling, meaning that many students enroll in these programs so that can study while also working. But these students face the same economic challenges that all students face. How can you make the process a little more affordable?

Explore the Tech Costs of Online Learning

It’s good to estimate what you’ll need and what it will cost before you enroll. Fortunately, most schools that offer online programs also post their requirements online, so that you can get a better idea of what will be required and shop around before making any purchases. Take a look at these examples from University of Nebraska, and American Military University.

You can expect technology related expenses in three basic categories:

  • Hardware: Public access computers may be sufficient on a temporary basis, but having your own machine, to which you have administrative rights, is highly preferred. Schools explain, “If you must use a computer over which you do not have administrative rights (such as a library or workplace computer), you may experience difficulties with needed functions such as installing plug-ins.” Downloading and updating software, and accessing some course-related materials, may be prohibited. Most online courses are designed for either Windows or Mac systems, but some schools require one or the other.
  • Software: Basic applications such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint are usually expected, so that you can prepare documents and presentations with required formatting and create common file types that can be opened by your instructors. Anti-virus software is also important, and you may need to purchase specific software to complete assignments in individual courses.
  • Internet Access: Different options are available, with broadband connections (i.e. LAN, Cable, DSL) preferred. Again, public or work options may be useful on occasion, but not ideal for the long term since they can block access to some sites and not provide the speeds required to view all course materials. Check with Internet service providers (e.g., phone and cable companies) in your local area for current monthly rates.

Keep in mind that there are additional technology needs in online learning that may not have associated costs, such as email, Internet browsers, plug-ins, etc.

Expect variance in expense estimates depending on the school, level of program, academic discipline, etc. Students pursuing degrees in graphic design, for example, will have technology needs that are different from those studying sociology. Some programs also recommend purchasing additional items for participation in online courses, such as web cameras, headsets, printers, and scanners.

Remember, Every Little Bit Helps

The good news is that there are strategies available to help you afford higher education and online learning. Here are a few ideas for shaving down total costs:

  • Work with what you have. If you already own a laptop or other computer, take the time to inventory the system. How much space available on the hard drive? What software do you already own or have access to? Compare your existing resources to your program’s recommendations and requirements. You can always buy a better system later on if you find it necessary, but in the meantime you probably don’t need the top of the line, especially if you are just getting started.
  • Look for software alternatives. OpenOffice is a “free and open productivity suite” that is very similar to Microsoft Office. Using OpenOffice Writer instead of Microsoft Word will give you comparable results. Gimp is a free image editor with features similar to those in Photoshop. If you use an alternative application, there will be a learning curve of some type, including saving files in a format required in your courses. Trial versions of expensive programs are also often an option if you only need access for a short time.
  • Search for student discounts. Once you are enrolled, you may be eligible for special pricing. Your school may have its own bookstore that offers discount purchases to students or access to group licenses to any applications you may be required to use. Before you buy anything new, check with your school’s help desk, librarians, and advisors for more information and to find out about offers for hardware, software, and possibly Internet access. Educational discounts are also available directly from some vendors such as Apple and Dell.
  • Shop around. The University of Pennsylvania posts updated buying guides that can be a good starting point. Their guide for purchasing a basic desktop computer indicates that you can expect to spend between $750 and $1,000. Details are also provided on the pros and cons of both less and more expensive machines, and the specs of Windows and Mac equivalents (e.g., processor, memory, hard disk). Once you have an idea of what to look for, you can compare prices with more confidence.
  • Ask about employment benefits. Does your company provide any tuition assistance or partner with online colleges and universities? If so, these types of programs should be first on your list when exploring budget-friendly higher education options. Your company may also provide you with access to similar discounts to office supplies, subscriptions, and other products and services. Sometimes these kinds of benefits mean paperwork and red tape before you can get started, but the financial savings can be worth the time and effort.
  • Apply for scholarships and grants. Loans have to be paid back with interest, but scholarships and grants are yours to keep, as long as you meet the qualifications. Most are competitive in some way and require you to submit formal applications, but don’t assume you won’t find anything here. Sites like,, The College Board and Federal Student Aid help you narrow your search, and your school’s financial aid office may be able to provide additional leads. This is another approach to cost savings that will require some legwork, but with the potential for reward.

Do the Math

So often it seems we understand the need to be more budget conscious, but avoid sitting down to compare what’s coming in and what’s going out. How do you know what you can afford if you don’t know what you have and what you spend?

  • Calculate your expenses. Online tools like Mapping Your Future’s Budget Calculator, CNN Money’s Ideal Budget, and’s Family Budget Analyzer make it easier to see in black and white your current income, actual expenses, and anything that might be left over.
  • Review and revise your habits. Once you know where your money is going, look for places to cut back with household spending. As an online student, you may not need so many TV channels, for example. When is the last time your reviewed your insurance policies, your cell phone plan, and other regular expenses?
  • Cut unnecessary spending. This is where small changes can start to make a difference. Last year Yahoo! Finance illustrated what a daily latte purchase really looks like. A $4 per day cup means “$28 a week, about $120 a month, and $1460 per year.” What if you saved that $4 per day to contribute to your home Internet service or for textbooks and class materials? If you don’t drink coffee, find another expense that may have the same effect when eliminated.

Budgeting becomes even more powerful if you make saving a habit and part of your long term plans. There’s a lot of debate about the return on investment of a college degree, and a clear benefit to racking up as little additional debt as possible in the process.

Some of my suggestions may seem harsh, but these aren’t sacrifices you’ll have to make forever, and cumulatively they could make a real impact both while you complete your program and after graduation. While it takes time and effort to put these strategies into place, the advantages can outweigh the challenges in terms of bringing costs (and stress) down to a more manageable level.

What are your cost-saving tips for online learners? Share your ideas, small and large, with us here.