kim headshotby Dr. Kimberly K.  Estep

Are you considering going back to school to complete a degree? Whether you hope to kick off a new career or advance in your current one, online education is overflowing with opportunities, flexibility, and convenience for the 21st century student.

A host of colleges and universities offer online degree programs, but not all are created equal. Affordability is a priority for just about everyone; many online programs are costly, and some can even saddle students with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Here are some tips for navigating your choices:

Tuition and Fees

It pays to comparison shop, especially in an era when institutional costs can vary dramatically from one school to the next. To estimate the cost of tuition and fees, the following factors will be important:

  • Transfer credit: If you’ve earned credits at another college or university in the past, how many of those credits will transfer into your desired degree program? It pays to contact an enrollment counselor and ask to have any potential transfer credit evaluated before you commit to a school.
  • Time: How long do you anticipate it will take you to complete the degree or credential? The longer it takes, the more likely you are to encounter life hurdles that might derail your plans. Estimate how many terms or semesters you need to complete the degree, and the cost per term of tuition and all mandatory fees, which can be substantial. Factor in a cost increase of at least 5% per year for the number of years you expect to be enrolled. At most institutions, tuition rises much more quickly than inflation.


Other Expenses
  • Textbooks: Students often underestimate the cost of textbooks, which can run several hundred dollars per term or more for some fields of study. Many online programs use e-textbooks that can save students a lot of money; ask about this option.
Financial Aid

Financial aid can make a huge difference in the actual cost of a degree. Be sure to investigate all available financial aid sources (like the ones listed below) before you commit to an online university or degree program:

  • Scholarships: Many institutions offer scholarship funds to defray part of the cost of attendance.
  • Grants: Need-based grants like the Pell Grant for low-income students or state-based grants can greatly reduce the cost and do not need to be repaid.
  • Employer Reimbursement: Many employers offer educational assistance, particularly for programs that are related to your current job or the needs of the company.
  • Loans: Many high-cost programs will urge students to take out large student loans to cover the cost. BEWARE! Loans must be paid back, and they cannot be discharged by bankruptcy. If you must take out loans, strive to keep the total balance as low as possible, and make sure you are aware of how much your monthly payments will be once you discontinue enrollment. Use loans as a last resort, and if you must borrow, borrow responsibly.

studyingWGU Tennessee offers working adults fifty programs that can be completed while working full-time. At only $6,000 per year for tuition (and no tuition increases since 2008), most of our students earn back their investments in education within only a few years.

Before you enroll, you need a clear understanding of the investment you will be making and the benefits you expect to receive. If you choose wisely, you can invest in an education that will pay dividends to you and your family for years, even decades, to come.


Dr. Kimberly Estep is the Chancellor of WGU Tennessee. She previously served as vice president for academic affairs and student services at Nashville State Community College. She has a doctorate in history from Auburn University and a master’s degree in adult education from the University of Georgia. You can find out more about WGU Tennessee by clicking here.