Trends in online education paint a clear picture: While enrollment in distance learning has declined slightly since pandemic-inspired records, it’s still significantly higher than pre-pandemic rates. Indeed, online colleges are increasingly popular as flexible and efficient pathways toward a degree, but how affordable are they? And what are you actually getting for those costs?
In this guide, we’ll answer these questions and more. We’ll begin by looking at the tuition for 20 U.S. colleges with online degree programs, providing a range of school types and costs. We’ll also offer ideas on other expenses you’ll encounter, resources to access while conducting your college search, and conclude with an expert’s perspective on online college ROI.
A Look at Online College Tuition Across the U.S.
Much like traditional college costs, online college tuition varies vastly based on numerous factors. So, identifying the most affordable programs can be challenging — which is why we’ve pulled data from 20 schools across the country offering online degree options to look at their tuition costs. Use the chart below as a baseline for your comparison research, as we’ve included a variety of public and private post-secondary institutions.
Note: This chart is primarily based on a full-time undergraduate schedule (30 credits per year/ 120 credits for 4 years) for the ‘23/’24 school year; fees are not included here unless already factored into a flat tuition rate. For some schools, fees can range from $2,000-$5,000 annually. Additionally, the cost of attendance and fees can change at any time.
|Online Tuition (per credit)
|Ball State University
|City University of Seattle
|Colorado State University (CSU Global)
|Florida Atlantic University
|Florida International University
|Grand Canyon University
|Methodist University Online
|Northern Arizona University
|Southern New Hampshire University
|Tarleton State University
|Texas Tech University
|University of Iowa
|University of Missouri
|West Virginia University
|$401 – $553 (program dependent)
|$48,120 – $66,360 (program dependent)
Other Expenses and Costs to Factor In
Although most of the focus on the cost of college is on the most considerable expense — tuition — this is by no means the only financial factor to consider. In fact, the college journey is riddled with expenses that can add up significantly if you don’t plan for them. Clearly, the best way to avoid surprise expenses is by researching typical costs and factoring them into your financial planning. With that in mind, here is a list of some of the most common routine expenses of attending school online.
Books and Supply Costs
One of the most significant expenses for any college student relates to books and supplies. No matter what courses you’re taking, you’ll likely have required textbooks, which often cost hundreds of dollars. Moreover, many courses also require students to purchase specific supplies or materials, which may also be costlier than expected. You may be able to purchase used books or supplies for a discounted price in some cases, but this is not guaranteed.
As an online student, you’ll have different expenses than students who attend school in person. Because you will access your classes completely or partially online, your school will likely charge a technology fee each semester. The fee often funds digital services like your IT support/help resources, e-mail, security solutions, software, digital communication tools, content management software, and online student academic support resources. Keep in mind that in addition to any fees charged by your school, you’ll also need to fund your own personal tech needs, like having a laptop, wireless network, and any software you might need that isn’t provided by the school.
Going to college online enables students to live wherever is most convenient for them. But even though you aren’t living in a dorm or other on-campus housing, you’ll still have living expenses. This means you’ll have to figure out how to create a work/life balance that enables you to pay the bills — rent, utilities, groceries, entertainment expenses, and beyond — while still having time for school. Depending on your circumstances, this could mean anything from working part time to working full time and simply finding quiet areas at work that allow you to study as permitted.
When you’re a college student — regardless of whether you’re attending traditional or online school — health insurance is generally required. Colleges are responsible for ensuring that all students can be treated in an emergency or access medical care when they need it. Preventive healthcare ensures you’re in the best health possible to be a more effective learner. Most college students can stay on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26; however, if you aren’t still covered on a parent’s plan, you can usually gain access to a school-supplied health insurance policy tailored for college students at a reduced cost.
Loss of Income
Being a student is a tough job. This is especially true when you’re enrolled full-time. Although many students do wish to work while earning their degree, this is not always possible. And sometimes, students find themselves needing to reduce hours or even quit their jobs in order to focus on their schooling. Therefore, new students should be prepared for this possibility when they enroll: If you must reduce your work hours to go to school, this will decrease the overall income you bring in for the short term, which should be factored into your budget.
What Makes Online College More Affordable
College can be costly, no matter how you choose to attend. This is primarily because tuition in the U.S. has been on the rise for quite some time. Those who can’t afford to pay for college outright are encouraged to explore all financial aid options before resorting to student loans. But attending college online can actually be a cost-reduction measure for funding your college education, as you’ll be able to avoid many costs associated with traditional college. Below, discover why online college is often a more affordable option.
Live Anywhere You Choose
One of the top reasons attending an online college is often more affordable than traditional college is that it allows students to live wherever they want. This means you won’t have to relocate and/or incur moving expenses to make college a reality. Further, you won’t be forced to pay for housing on or near campus. Online students can simply study from wherever they choose, and it’s up to you whether you decide to live with parents, roommates or in any location that is most comfortable and cost-effective for you. Avoiding the stereotypically exorbitant fees associated with student housing is one of the most important factors making an online college experience more affordable.
No Transportation Costs to and From Campus
Another way online college enables students to save is by eliminating the cost of transportation. Traditional students, unless they live on campus, must drive, use public transportation, or pay for ride-sharing to get to and from school daily. This doesn’t even include the cost of on-campus parking, which is notoriously steep. These transportation costs can obviously add up quickly and result in quite a hefty bill each semester. Fortunately, by attending college online, you can totally eliminate these expenses.
Generally Lower Additional Fees
Those who don’t read their school bills thoroughly may not realize how many additional fees are often associated with attending college in person. For instance, students are typically charged a health insurance fee. They may also be charged environmental, lab, and health and wellness fees, as well as student organization fees. While it’s possible to opt out of some of these expenses, when you attend school online, you are unlikely to be charged any of these fees.
Self-Pacing Means You Can Finish in Less Time
One lesser-considered benefit of attending school online is how much time you may be able to save. You can devote more time to schoolwork and less to traveling to and from campus. Further, if you’re studying in an asynchronous environment — where you work on your own schedule and without the need to adhere to timing requirements — you also don’t have to wait for the rest of the class to complete lessons or assignments. When you’re allowed to go as fast as you want, you can often reduce the time you’ll need to complete degree requirements.
Public vs. Private Schools
There is often a significant cost difference between public and private colleges, with public schools giving students a clear financial advantage. And in most cases, attending school online makes college more affordable across the board. You may even be able to attend an online private school for less money than an on-campus public school. It’s important to research tuition costs, but keep in mind that most online public or private schools deliver the same caliber of education as their on-ground counterparts — and courses are often taught by the same faculty as well.
In-State vs. Out-of-State Tuition
Although many traditional colleges charge different tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state students, many online colleges charge the same rate for all students, regardless of whether they live in state or out of state. In some cases, you may even pay lower tuition than both the resident or out-of-state tuition because you’re electing to take part in distance education. When researching online schools, make sure to determine whether your college charges different tuition rates based on state of residence.
How to Pay for Your Online Degree
Despite the fact that tuition is typically lower when you pursue a degree online, this doesn’t mean that the academic expectations are any less; in fact, accreditation ensures a consistent level of rigor across traditional and online college experiences, meaning your online degree carries just as much weight. And while the delivery method is different, you can still apply for and receive the same financial aid to fund your online degree as you would a traditional degree. Here are some of the most common ways that students pay for online degrees.
File the FAFSA
One of the first steps every prospective online student should take is to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is considered one of the most essential and universal student funding sources. Once you determine how much federal assistance you qualify to receive from your FAFSA application, you can plan your next financial aid steps. Also, many scholarships, grants, and loans determine your financial need through your FAFSA. Ready to file yours? Learn more from our financial aid and FAFSA guides.
Scholarships & Grants
Apply for scholarships and grants to earn free money to pay for college. After doing some internet research, you’ll be able to find everything from general scholarships and grants with somewhat universal eligibility requirements to super-specific options based on your chosen major, ethnicity, and more. Some of these may even be available through your institution, but most schools don’t offer a comprehensive list of every funding option available. Looking for a place to start your search for scholarships and grants? Our guide to college scholarships is a practical first step.
Although it’s not offered at every job, employer reimbursement can be an excellent way to fund your college degree. And this is typically not a benefit available exclusively to executives and upper-level employees. In fact, it’s usually not about which position you hold as much as it’s about which company employs you. Many small, independent companies — as well as big names like Patagonia, Wegmans, Apple, Home Depot, Chipotle, or Starbucks — offer their employees at least partial reimbursement of their tuition and fees for undergraduate degrees. Some companies offer reimbursement for graduate degrees as well, so be sure to check your employee handbook for details about this valuable benefit.
Lastly, the military offers a wide array of benefits to servicemembers interested in pursuing higher education. For instance, you can receive financial aid for college either while serving or after you’ve completed your service. And if you are a spouse or child of a military member or veteran, you may also be eligible to receive financial aid from the military to earn your college degree. There are certain rules and parameters required to determine eligibility, so check out this page to learn more about the financial aid options for active members of the military and veterans.
Resources for Prospective Online Students
When it comes to choosing and paying for online college, you should always take the time to research your options. However, there is so much information out there that it can be tedious to filter through it all. To make it more convenient, we’ve compiled a list of 10 resources that can help you explore what’s available and build a personalized plan suited to your unique needs.
- The College Investor – This blog provides investing and personal finance advice targeted at millennials who are college students. It includes information on saving for college, student loans, wealth building, fundraising, and more.
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – This is a great resource for prospective online students. It offers information on how to understand financial aid offers, repay student loans, loan cancellation, forgiveness, and more.
- Edvisors – Edvisors is a student life blog that helps students plan for college, compare lenders, and learn about money management. You’ll also gain general student life tips and learn about getting/using credit cards.
- Finaid – This website covers an array of scholarships, grants, work studies opportunities, etc. It also offers a savings calculator, FAFSA information, and more.
- Financial inTuition Podcast – This podcast offers tips and strategies to help students make more informed financial decisions regarding money management, financing college, and repaying student loan debt.
- How To Choose The BEST College FOR YOU! | College Declassified Podcast – This comprehensive podcast episode covers financial aid topics, how to choose a college and a major, how to discuss family finances, extracurricular activities in college, and more.
- How to Pay for College by the College Financial Lady – This blog and podcast focuses on empowering students to plan for and apply for college, fund it, and repay any debt as quickly as possible.
- Saving for College – This site covers the various types of 529 plans and how to fund them, FAFSA, as well as the different types of student loans offered.
- Save the Student – This website offers resources on financing college, finding gainful employment, and other ways to make money to fund your college career.
- U.S. Department of Education – This is another excellent resource to find online educational funding. This site offers information on various Pell grants, FAFSA, student loans, loan forgiveness, and more.
An Expert Weighs In: Paying for Your Online Degree
Milladge E. Griffin
Q: What is the most common mistake made when securing financial aid for any type of degree?
A: The most common mistake is not following the rules to apply for aid. In other words, most parents don’t realize that they have to apply for their kids by creating an account for themselves but entering their children’s information on the application. So, one of the top mistakes is not following the directions when filling out the application.
Q: What are some of the hidden costs of pursuing online bachelor’s degrees that most students overlook?
A: They’re all primarily the same. I recommend using the FAFSA as a precursor; some schools may customize the type of aid they offer to online students vs. traditional students. So online students may get some advantages from attending school online.
Q: How can I find and apply for scholarships specifically targeted toward online students?
A: When it comes to finding scholarships, students should first go to the school they’re considering and search their website to see what opportunities are available. Each institution is different. The best way to find out your options is by contacting the financial aid office at the school directly.
Q: How can I assess the overall affordability of an online bachelor’s degree program?
A: That boils down to the family assessing what they can afford based on their finances. So many schools offer so many different programs; you have to do what’s best for your finances vs. doing what’s most popular or accepted. Also, make sure you ask yourself if it’s worth the investment. You can often get the same degree for cheaper or enroll in accelerated programs that enable you to save time but often cost much more. Nevertheless, make sure you research all the benefits, reviews, and more of each school. If you look into it, you will see the government forgave a lot of college debt for students who went schools with predatory lending practices, for instance. So, make sure you’re not just falling for marketing and are actually getting the most for your money.
Q: Can you provide any tips on creating a budget and financial plan to cover the costs of an online degree program?
A: One of the biggest things is household expenditures. Is the school that you’re looking at within the budget or your expenditures? If not, make sure the degree is worth the debt. Then look at the tuition; how much aid will you get? Do you have a gap in aid? Look into employer tuition incentives or part-time jobs that may enable you to make extra money to offset the gap. Can you get a payment plan to close the gap? Also, look at private schools vs. public schools. What are you comfortable with paying? A lot of students are taking jobs where they can flex their schedules, and that allows them to make money to manage the payment gap. Either way, planning is essential. When you think it through, make a budget and stick to it so you can effectively execute your plan without financial hardships.
Q: What steps can I take to avoid excessive student loan debt while pursuing an online degree?
A: Look at alternate forms of financing: employer plans, payment plans (and can I afford it?), am I part-time or full time, grants, are there scholarships available?