Dec 6, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

There are many good reasons to pursue an online degree. However, many people also have a big reason not to: its cost. The good news? Not only are online degrees often cheaper than their classroom counterparts, but there are also ways to keep costs low. Read on for a roundup of five ways to reduce the cost of your online degree.

1. Pick an accredited school.

Federal financial aid can seriously offset the cost of college, but it is only available to schools that are accredited by a federally recognized accrediting agency. Not sure if your school and program are accredited? Check out the Department of Education’s Federal School Code Search tool and the Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

And while other loan options may be available for non-accredited degree programs, they are more likely to be from lenders with higher rates, less favorable terms, and fewer protections.

2. Compare federal and private student loans.

This is not to say all private student loans are bad. In some cases, they may even offer lower interest rates than the government -- albeit without the ability to apply for loan forgiveness or to change your repayment plan. The takeaway? Due diligence is everything when it comes to identifying the best student loan.

And here’s one more word of advice from the experts: Borrow only the bare minimum after factoring in grants, scholarships, and other “gift aid.” After all, the less you borrow now, the less you have to worry about paying back later.

3. Look into tuition reimbursement with your employer.

Many employers offer tax deductible tuition reimbursement benefits to full-time employees who are looking to move up the career track, and online programs are increasingly viewed in a positive light.

Julie Uranis, vice president for online and strategic initiatives at the University Professional Continuing Education Association, told US News & World Report, "Many years ago, employers were cautious when it came to online learning, but after hundreds of studies showing the efficacy of online learning, employers see financing the educational attainment of their employees for what it is: an investment that pays dividends."

For a list of companies that will pay part of their employees’ college bills, check out The Balance’s 15 companies that offer tuition reimbursement programs.

4. Seek out scholarship support.

Many online schools offer scholarship support directly to students. Contact the university to which you are applying to learn more about how to apply for financial aid.

In addition to need-based scholarships, merit-based scholarships are also available to incentivize top students. If your academic profile is stellar, you may have an excellent chance at receiving one of these awards.

5. Reduce your course load with past credits, if possible.

Not all online education programs use the same method of charging students. While some programs are 'lump sum', others charge by the course or credit hour. In some cases, if you have previous college credits, work experience, or life experience, you may be able to apply these to your program as credits thereby reducing your tuition bill.

Understanding ahead of time exactly which credits will transfer can help you determine how long your program will take until completion and what you can expect to pay along the way. University financial advisors should be able to help you with this. "A lot of students don’t know how to do that, and that’s a mistake. The consumer needs to know how much it’s going to cost them, and how long it’s going to take," university chief operating officer Tom Finaly told US News & World Report.

The same theory applies to fees. Many online students end up paying extra money for fees and services -- some of which they never even use. Determining the total cost of attendance can help you make the most informed choice when choosing between programs and funding options.

One last thing to keep in mind about online studies is that while steep costs can be hard to swallow, there’s a bigger picture to consider. Distance Learning program director Ted Bongiovanni told US News & World Report, "When you're thinking about the cost, you shouldn't only be thinking about the actual out-of-pocket costs, but the opportunity cost of pursuing one thing over another thing. By that calculation, I think online ed does really well. You do have a lot more flexibility."

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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