Online college programs are popular, with nearly two percent of the U.S. population enrolled in at least one course at any given time (according to a 2015 study). They come from public schools, from private non-profits and for-profits, though recent years (and recent financial scandals) have seen a drop in the private for-profit sector, with the failure of schools like ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges.

But choosing an online college and choosing how to pay for it are both decisions that should be undertaken very carefully. In January 2017, the federal Department of Education measured 8,700 career programs, including many online programs, by the metric of “gainful employment.” That metric failed programs if their graduates on average had to pay more than twelve percent of their post-program income on student loans, or 30 percent of their discretionary income. More than 800 programs failed with another 1,200 right on the line.

A grim truth of online education is that online students are less likely to complete their certification or degree. But they’re still on the hook for their tuition costs. Online programs are likely to require payment in full up front, leading many to take out loans. Any federally accredited program allows students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines your need for a federal grant or loan. Beyond that, plenty of people seek private loans.

Students who don’t complete their degrees (like approximately two thirds of online students) account for 60 percent of those who will eventually default on their loans, harming their credit and therefore their options for housing and careers for years to come. So it’s important to carefully consider where you stand when considering options.

Even as an online college student, there are grants and scholarships available. Treat the process the way you would attending a brick and mortar university. Seek local scholarships, review scholarship searches and boards, and ask about work-study programs.

Ultimately, if you are considering online college, make sure to do your research and some soul-searching to see if you believe you can complete a degree or certification solely via the internet.

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash