A few learn to combine studies elsewhere with beach

As the jet stream pours frigid air into the northern United States, thousands of college and university students are about to start their second semester.

At some colleges in the State University of New York system workers erect temporary systems of ropes and barriers so students can find the buildings during winter whiteouts. Other northern schools will see three feet of snow this year.

Meanwhile, in Costa Rica a few students, perhaps from the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom, are preparing for class, too. But they will attend full- or part-time through the Internet. And some will have the advantage of government loans the same way they would if they were freezing on their way to class up north.

Some schools, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell for example, offerentire degree programs online. The school is a leader with what is known in academics as distance learning. But many other schools are seeing the advantages. The major problems appear to be maintaining quality and training faculty members to handle the technology. These are problems for students, too.

UMass Lowell says it offers one of the largest nonprofit online and continuing education programs in New England, featuring a huge selection of affordable part-time graduate and undergraduate courses.

One Costa Rican expat just returned to his home state for in-person exams. He received U.S. federal grants, educational loans from his state and additional benefits. He could be completing his online course work from an off-campus apartment.

Instead he choose to be way off campus in Costa Rica.

The trend still is small, but online courses are growing as established colleges and university seek more income. A number of private institutions, such as the University of Phoenix have pioneered online classes for foreign students, U.S. nationals overseas and even members of the U.S. military, who are eligible for special financial benefits.

The trend opens up a new area of tourism for Costa Rica where college and university students can attend classes in another country while enjoying the benefits of living here.

There are students enrolled in university classes here, but that requires good Spanish. The University for Peace in Ciudad Colón also has full-time students, nearly all international.

The idea of a semester overseas has long been a tradition at First World colleges and universities.   International experience is considered a plus by administrators and even potential employers. The country has a number of schools teaching Spanish for credit to First World students. Nearly all, however, return to their homeland after the language course is completed.

Few realize that they have the option to remain here and complete one or more academic semesters online from the beach.

An undetermined number of U.S. and Canadian academics also are participating in these programs from Costa Rica where they are the instructors of online classes. Universities like these arrangements, too, because they can pay teachers less and perhaps without many of the traditional academic fringe benefits.

Overseas U.S. teachers, of course, are eligible for the usual expat tax benefits.

The U.S. Department of Education says that a student must be enrolled at least half-time to be eligible for direct loan program funds. The agency says nothing about location. There also are direct grants.

U.S. loans and grants are available for U.S. citizens and green card holders as well as persons in a few other categories of immigration, such as refugees. Undergraduates can borrow up to $31,000 during their academic career. Graduate students can borrow much  more. That money would go much further in Costa Rica.

Pell grants go to about 5.4 million full- and part-time college and vocational school students nationally each year, the department said.

The U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid provides more than $150 billion every year in grants, loans, and work-study funds to students attending college or career school, the agency said.

Chilly Minnesota has an agency devoted to helping students find educational cash. The Minnesota State Grant Program Administrationlists a number of grant and loan programs open only to state residents. Other U.S. states have similar programs that dovetail with the federal ones.

So a Minnesota resident could sign up for courses at the state’s leading university. Theuniversity lists more than 100 courses that begin this month. They range from the alluring ArtH 10024W Why Art Matters  to Biol 4004 Cell Biology.

Another aspect of online education is the required continuing education courses for school teachers who could easily complete a course from a Costa Rican beach during U.S. summer vacation.

Although technically it is possible for a university or college to know where an online student is located, there do not seem to be any rules prohibiting access from abroad. Still, those in Costa Rica who do this, obtain federal loans and grants as well as state incentives prefer not to make that known.

Costa Rica’s own technology has advanced in the last five years so that decent Internet access is available nearly all over the country.

The downside is that students and former students living in Costa Rica have to pay back the loans unless other arrangements are made. Living overseas does not eliminate the loan. Still, the U.S. federal government reports $60 billion in loans are in default.

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