Higher education can be an invaluable asset to students who are looking for professional advancement, higher wages, or a change in their career paths. Online programs are strong options for those who are also looking for flexibility when working toward a degree. OnlineU aims to support students in their personal and professional endeavors by highlighting the most affordable colleges offering online degrees at the associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels.
OnlineU analyzed internal cost data from over 800 schools and found a median annual tuition rate of $13,919 for an online bachelor's degree and $14,278 for an online master's degree.
However, there are many online bachelor's and master’s programs that are even more affordable. Of the cheapest online colleges, tuition for a bachelor's degree ranges from $5,067-$7,891 per year. Meanwhile, the most affordable colleges for master's degrees have annual tuition rates between $2,700-$5,467.
Online Median Annual Tuition
It may be helpful to compare tuition rates by their cost per credit instead of per year. For example, some degrees take longer to complete than others — even degrees of the same level. Students may also prefer to attend school part time. In these cases, it's more helpful to think in terms of total credit hours rather than years or semesters. The following chart breaks down the median cost per credit hour of different types of degrees:
Typical Number of Credits
Cost-Per-Credit of OnlineU Schools
50 - 60
$60 - $1,282
120 - 128
$106.8 - $1,325
30 - 60
$180 - $4,836
36 - 120
$277 - $1,995
Online College vs. an On-Campus Experience: Which is Cheaper?
According to a sample of 100 schools, 80% of public schools offer lower rates for out-of-state students studying online, while 96% of private schools also have cheaper online programs for this population group. In addition, more than a third of public schools charge in-state students less when they study online.
There are several reasons for the relative affordability of online programs. Some public colleges charge online students the same rate as in-state residents no matter where they live, which can potentially save tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a degree. Similarly, private schools may also charge a lower rate to distance learners. Even though some schools still charge the same amount to all college students, online students rarely pay higher tuition than their on-campus colleagues.
According to a sample of 100 schools, 80% of public schools offer lower rates for out-of-state students studying online, while 96% of private schools also have cheaper online programs for this population group.
It's important to keep in mind that individual distance learning programs are not always more affordable than in-person programs, so students should research the costs of their individual program before applying. In addition to tuition, applicants should note each program's length and the amount of financial aid they can secure from the school.
For example, while for-profit colleges appeal to many applicants because they frequently allow students to take more classes per year, they may leave students in a more precarious financial situation after graduating. Although for-profit colleges may shorten the program length to make room for more classes, this attractive feature may be offset by higher tuition overall. In addition, these universities tend to offer less financial assistance than other types of schools, which means their students end up taking out more loans. As a result, the alumni of for-profit schools tend to accrue more debt and default on their loans at higher rates.
Additional College Cost Factors Besides Tuition
Although low tuition is something many students look for when pursuing a college education, it's not the only expense to consider. Often, there are other costs that online students must pay:
Books, whether paper or electronic, vary in price from class to class. In the 2019-2020 academic year, college students spent an average of $1,100-$1,300 on books, depending on whether they attended a public or private college. Students may be able to save money by purchasing e-books when available, buying used books, and comparing prices on e-retailers.
A computer and reliable internet connection are essential to earning an online degree. Distance learners can live and work from anywhere as long as they have a stable internet connection. Students may find it difficult to use a public computer for all their online courses because watching lectures and completing assignments requires long hours. Many libraries and computer labs limit patrons' internet use and may also close in the early evening. However, an online college education is increasingly mobile-friendly, and some schools tout that much of their coursework can be completed on a phone or tablet.
Despite these additional costs, online students can avoid other expenses, such as room and board, by maintaining their current living arrangements. They also save by not commuting to and from campus, from gas money and car maintenance fees to public transportation costs. Ultimately, distance learners don't need to uproot their lives when enrolling in an out-of-state program, which can be an expensive experience for in-person students.
Financial Aid for Online Students
Financial aid can lower the total cost of higher education, easing a student's financial burden by leaving them with less debt after graduation. The best forms of aid don't need to be repaid: grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. However, most students still need to take out loans to finance their degrees. Students should prioritize student loans from the government first because they offer better interest rates than private sources.
Applicants simply turn in their personal and financial information to determine whether they qualify for federal aid. Although students with undocumented immigration status cannot apply for federal aid, they should still check with their state for an alternate form to complete, so they can acquire state and private aid.
In general, online learners qualify for the same financial aid programs as on-campus students, but students should verify each program's eligibility requirements. It may also be beneficial to contact a school's financial aid office to ensure that they accept the aid that a student has already received.
Below are some of the major financial aid sources that prospective students can investigate:
The federal government offers financial aid to students at all levels, including the need-based Pell Grant for undergraduate students and the TEACH Grant for students in graduate programs planning to become certified teachers.
State governments provide a variety of programs based on need, merit, and ethnic/racial background.
Colleges usually host aid programs for their students. These can include need- or merit-based grants for students in any discipline or scholarships funded by alumni for students in specific majors.
Students may benefit from contacting their college’s financial aid office after enrolling. Administrators may be able to guide students to aid programs that they had not even considered. Also, it's the best practice to apply for as much assistance as possible because having multiple sources of financial aid helps reduce a degree's overall cost.
Who Can Apply: High school seniors who identify as female, nonbinary, gender fluid, or women of transgender experience, have a 3.0 GPA, and plan to study a STEM discipline
Application Materials: Transcripts, two letters of recommendation, personal 500-word essay, outline of applicant’s personal, academic, and community engagements
The Importance of Finding an Accredited Online Program
One of the most important qualities to look for when you're reviewing online degree options is accreditation. A community college or university must undergo an extensive, multi-year evaluation by an independent agency to become accredited. The agency examines the school's programs, faculty, facilities, and student resources, comparing them against recognized standards of excellence before awarding accreditation. The best online colleges have been accredited by one of six authorized regional accrediting boards or by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.
Choosing an accredited institution is important for several reasons:
Future employers may confirm that you earned your college degree from an accredited institution as part of their standard background check.
Eligibility for financial aid is usually dependent on enrollment in an accredited school.
If you want to transfer credits you've earned to another college, the second school will likely only accept credits from an accredited program.
Depending on the occupation you've chosen, you may need to earn additional certification or licensure after graduating. Your ability to do so may depend on whether you attended an accredited school.
A bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university is usually a prerequisite for earning any advanced degree.
OnlineU only lists accredited colleges and universities. We provide details about each school we rank, as shown below.
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