11 Tips: How to Cut Your Online College Costs

One of the things that hold some adults back from returning to school to finish their degree online or through correspondence courses is the cost of tuition and textbooks. There is no doubt about it; it certainly isn't getting cheaper to go to school.

Even distance learning-only institutions increase their tuition rates with each passing year (or as their programs become more popular), so going to college without breaking the bank becomes more of a challenge. However, there are some simple and easy ways of saving money while you earn your degree.

Shop Around for Schools

You shop around for homes, cars, clothing and other basic necessities, so why not comparison shop for schools, too? There is a great database of colleges and universities here at eLearners that will not only tell you about the programs being offered by those schools, but it will often tell you what the per-credit-hour tuition rate is, too.

Tuition rates for schools, even online degree programs, can vary widely, so it definitely pays to do your homework. Don't assume that schools with national accreditation through organizations like the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) will be cheaper than regionally accredited colleges.

Refer Other Students

Some online colleges and universities will offer a break on tuition if you refer other students and they enroll in a program. In some cases, the discount applies to you and to the student that you refer. While you might feel uncomfortable essentially being a salesperson for a school, the savings for tuition could run from $50 to a few hundred dollars for each student that you refer to the school. If you know co-workers, family or friends who are also thinking of going back to school to finish that degree, it might pay to refer them to your school. It could save you some money on your tuition!

Look for Local Programs

While there are some inexpensive nationally accredited programs, there are some very competitively priced regionally accredited schools, too.Be sure to check the online and distance learning offerings of the colleges and universities in the state in which you reside.

There are no barriers to resident students taking distance learning programs, even from a school located in the same city as you. Resident student tuition is often cheaper than that for out-of-state students at state colleges and universities, although some do offer the same distance learning tuition rate for both. Also, be sure to check the web sites of for-profit distance learning schools for any specials or discounts they might be offering for tuition.

Test Out of Courses

Students don't have to take courses to earn college credit. It is possible to "test out" of an entire college course, earn anywhere from 3 to 12 credit hours and pay a fraction of what you would normally pay to attend the course.

CLEP Tests

The College Level Examination Program, or CLEP exam, is designed to demonstrate knowledge a student already possesses. There are many books and study guides available to help students successfully pass the exam.

Exams cover a wide range of subjects, including:

  • Business
  • Composition and Literature
  • Foreign Languages
  • History
  • Social Sciences
  • Science
  • Mathematics

Each CLEP exam costs $72 to take, plus an exam fee paid at the testing center, which is usually located at a local college campus. Compare that to the cost of a three-credit college course, and you can see how the savings will add up!


DANTES, or Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support exams, also known as DSST exams, are similar to CLEP exam in that they allow you to demonstrate college-level knowledge and earn credit.

The tests are geared toward helping military service members gain college credit, but civilians can take the exams, too. The exam fee is $70, and there is a transcript fee of $20. Each exam is worth 3 credit hours, and there are some upper-level offerings available at the baccalaureate level. Be sure to check your school's policy on accepting CLEP or DANTES exams for credit before you take any test.

Challenge Exams

If your degree program requires you to re-take a class you might have already taken, or you have the sufficient knowledge to directly test out of a course, check to see if your school offers proficiency or challenge exams.

These are exams administered by the school, and passing one with a high enough score could mean that you can get credit for a course. There are usually fees associated with these exams and they do vary, but the fees are often much less expensive than the cost of taking the entire course. Even if the exam does cost as much as taking the course you could still realize a time savings and complete your degree program even faster.

Get the Credit You Have Coming to You

Were you ever in the military? Does your employer have classroom training for its workers? Chances are the training you received may be worth college credit! The American Council on Education, or ACE, reviews many training programs of the U.S. military and for some of the country's largest employers, and evaluates how much college credit those courses are worth.

If you aren't sure if those courses are worth college credit, there is a database available where you can look up the course by employer and see for yourself. ACE will also compile a transcript of all of your college-level training courses so you can send it to any colleges you are considering attending.

Military service members can obtain their course transcripts for Army, Army Reserve or National Guard training or for Navy and Marine Corps training. Even some of the training recruits received at boot camp is potentially eligible for college credit!

Save Big on Textbooks

After you have enrolled in college, one of the biggest expenses is paying for textbooks for your courses. Sure, the online college bookstore might offer used textbooks, but they usually aren't much cheaper than new books. There are some ways you can save big on this rather large college expense.

Book Fees Included With Tuition

First of all, some colleges include textbooks in the cost of their tuition. Nationally accredited schools such as American Military University and Penn Foster College send textbooks to their students at no additional charge. Regionally accredited Kaplan University includes textbooks in the cost of tuition for all of its undergraduate programs.

Buying Books Over the Internet

If you do need to purchase textbooks, skip the college bookstore and hit the World Wide Web. There are many web sites which offer cut-rate college textbooks at substantial cost savings. Half.com, Amazon.com, Bookbyte.com…even eBay, all offer textbooks which can help you save 50 percent or more.

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