Online learning, also known as distance education, is a great way to experience the U.S. education system without leaving home. U.S. institutions offer a variety of full-time degree programs at undergraduate and graduate levels as well as individual courses. Classes are facilitated through a variety of methods, including websites, mobile apps, email, telephones, and more. To receive credit from a U.S. institution for distance learning, the student usually pays a tuition fee.
There are options now available for online learning such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are usually tuition-free, but in most cases do not offer credit. The U.S. Department of State also facilitates a free in-person MOOC Camp program in many countries. In addition to full-time degree programs or individual courses, some U.S. institutions of higher education offer part-time blended programs that may be partially online and require occasional on-campus attendance, called “low-residency programs.”
Students taking full-time online programs are not eligible for U.S. student visas but, when short-term U.S. attendance is required for low residency programs, a student visa is needed. Students attending a U.S. university in person for full-time degree study and who are also enrolled in any online courses should speak with the institution’s Designated School Official (DSO) in the International Student and Scholar Office to ensure visa compliance.
Why do students enroll in distance education?
They have childcare or eldercare obligations.
They cannot take time away from their current jobs to enhance their future employment possibilities.
The program may be offered at a location that is not feasible to attend for economic, cultural, or political reasons.
Consider the following:
How long has the institution been enrolling students in this program?
How often and through what means is the program and curriculum reviewed?
What is the average length of time it takes for a student to complete this program?
Where can you find evaluations of this program?
What types of employment do graduates of this program find?
Will this program be recognized in your home country or by employers?
Costs for distance education vary considerably. Distance education can save you the expenses of travel, taking time off from work, and lodging, but the actual academic fees may correspond to those of traditional campus programs. If any period of residency on campus is required during the course of the program, you should include those costs in your budget as well.
Review the costs of any learning materials associated with each course and allow for the shipping fees and import duties these may incur. Also take advantage of the growing number of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are free. A common business model for MOOC participation is that students who would like to receive a certificate of completion or credit for a course pay a small fee but all others may participate free of charge. Participating in a MOOC is often a great way to “test drive” a U.S. education.
Assess Personal Funds
Evaluate how much funding you or your family is able to provide for your education. To reduce educational costs, compare programs of interest to see if there is any fluctuation in cost, depending on the type and location of the U.S. institution.
How to Get Financial Aid for Online College
1. Submit the FAFSA. To receive financial aid, the first and most important step is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This is available online on Oct. 1 each year. To receive the most financial aid possible, prospective students should check school and state grant deadlines and apply early.
The FAFSA requires applicants to fill in basic information, such as their contact information and Social Security number, as well as provide their latest federal income tax returns and bank statements. Undergraduate students who are younger than 24 years old – and not married, veterans or active military members – will need to file as a dependent and provide their parents’ financial information.
Nearly all students who apply for financial aid qualify for some form of it.
2. Fill out other financial aid forms and apply for scholarships. Many colleges offer their own source of financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships and loans. You may need to fill out additional forms to receive this aid. This information – including deadlines – is generally available on a school’s website.
Applicants can also search online for scholarships available at specific schools or from organizations tied to their discipline. Online learners may be eligible for the same scholarships available to on-campus students, and there may even be additional scholarships for online or adult learners.
3. Review and correct the FAFSA Student Aid Report. A few days after submitting the FAFSA online, applicants will receive a Student Aid Report from the Federal Student Aid office. This report restates answers that applicants provided as well as other relevant information, and it’s an opportunity for applicants to correct any errors on the FAFSA, including adding or removing colleges.
5. Reapply for financial aid each year. To continue receiving financial aid each year, applicants need to fill out the FAFSA annually for as long as they plan to be a student. A degree can be a major investment, and financial aid can help ease the burden of costly tuition. Much like financial aid for on-campus students, aid for online students is available in the form of grants, scholarships, loans and even federal work-study jobs. That said, some online degree programs may not offer work-study opportunities, as many online students are already working full time.
The online degree financial aid process is often identical to that of students earning a degree in person. Online students also need to meet similar – if not the same – requirements to be eligible for financial aid at a given school. Additionally, whether a student is full- or part-time can affect that person’s ability to qualify for financial aid. To receive certain amounts or types of aid, many online programs require students to meet specific credit-hour requirements.
Applying for financial aid is a complex process. In a 2022 survey of online students by Wiley Education Services, 17% of online students indicated that determining how to pay for school was the most difficult part of the enrollment process, while 15% said completing financial aid forms was the hardest. Luckily, accredited online colleges often have financial aid advisers to answer questions and help applicants through the process.
To learn more, read U.S. News’ paying for college coverage. There you’ll find expert advice and resources to help you through the process.