Paying for a college education at many U.S. institutions can be almost as expensive as buying a home, especially when you factor in campus fees and room and board alongside tuition. Online colleges are an affordable option for students who want to significantly reduce their expenses without limiting their academic options. In fact, eliminating housing fees can often reduce the cost of your education at an in-state public institution by half. Beyond reducing costs, online learning allows students to study in a comfortable, no-pressure learning environment of their choice. Most online programs feature asynchronous courses, allowing students to complete coursework at their own pace while using online forums and chat groups to communicate with their peers. Distance learning is an ideal option for students who work full-time or have children because affordable online colleges typically offer more convenience and flexibility than their on-campus counterparts.
Student Debt is on the Rise
Further driving the increase of affordable online colleges is the upward swing of tuition prices at many schools. It may not be surprising that college tuition is both expensive and can incur years of debt post-graduation, reaching an all-time high in recent years. As of 2015, nearly 70% of college graduates faced a debt of at least $30,000, compared to less than half of students with debt among their predecessors’ generation in 1993.
In 2016, the average amount of student debt for college undergraduates continued its steady climb, totaling $1.3 trillion in the U.S. alone. The majority of students can expect to owe at least $300 per month for ten years just to repay the funds they borrowed to put toward a college education.
The largest number of college students who graduate with debt enter into what is called a Level Student Loan Repayment Plan, to be paid off in less than ten years. While admirable, this type of repayment plan is overly ambitious for many students, who struggle to meet minimum monthly payments and repay their loans while also starting their careers in the first ten years post-graduation. The second-most concentrated borrower group enroll in Income-Based Repayment (RBI), a type of plan that caps monthly payments at 15% of the student’s discretionary income over the course of 25 years, at which point any remaining debt is forgiven. Though 10 to 25 years may seem like a lifetime to owe payments on college loans, it is the reality for most college students who did not graduate from cheap online schools.
How Much Does it Cost to go to College Online?
As with on-campus study, the tuition costs for even the cheapest online colleges depends on a variety of factors, including the type of school, degree, and number of credits needed to complete the program. Private schools typically cost more than public state schools, as these private school do not have access to the same amount of funding that can be used to subsidize the costs of tuition. Additionally, online school are even more affordable than schools that offer both on-campus and distance learning programs. They type of degree you plan to pursue can also affect cost because of the amount of time it takes to complete the program. For example, a four-year bachelor’s degree will cost less to earn than a six-year graduate degree. In some cases, online universities offer accelerated programs that can be completed in less time, which can help save money on tuition fees.
|University||Cost per Credit|
|Full Sail University||$475|
Saving Money with Cheap Online Colleges
The term “cheap” can sometimes be interpreted as negative, though in this case, we view it as being interchangeable with “affordable.” Just because cheap online colleges cost less than an expensive, Ivy League, private school, it does not necessarily make them any less reputable or effective in providing a high-quality education experience.
Attending the cheapest online college that offers your program of choice also provides additional benefits apart from the financial. Online learning allows extra flexibility beyond traditional programs for students who have full-time or part-time jobs. Completing online coursework from a distance can help the many college students who are working, allowing them to continue earning money to pay for living expenses for themselves and/or their family while going to school, versus having to work around strict classroom hours and commuting to and from campus.
In addition, many programs offered by cheap online colleges can be completed in an accelerated format, allowing students to complete a full course load and earn a degree in a shorter amount of time. Students may also be eligible to test out of basic prerequisite courses, thus reducing the number of courses — and cost of tuition per unit — required to complete their degree.
What Makes a College Affordable?
With skyrocketing tuition costs and campus-based fees, students in traditional programs are subject to countless additional charges, for everything from using the library, to living on campus, to maintaining the rec center facilities. This is where online programs can help save students from excessive fees and expenses. Degrees are available at many cheap online schools for a fraction of the cost of traditional programs offered on campus. Many have a price tag similar to in-state tuition, which tends to be more affordable than out-of-state tuition. In some cases, even online programs that verge on the pricier side still cost less than traditional programs for students from out of state.
Can I Save Money by Earning my Degree Online?
Earning a degree online is one of the biggest ways that cheap online colleges reduce the overall cost for students, as distance learning eliminates the need for room and board. Beyond room and board, there are several other costs that online learning eliminates and that can lead to a noticeable difference in overall cost, including:
Distance learning means no need to commute to class, resulting in saved money on gas and car maintenance costs and no need for an expensive parking permit.
Many schools will waive their mandatory campus amenity fees for online students who are unlikely to use any of the campus facilities, such as gyms and recreational space.
Having to hire a babysitter to attend class can quickly become prohibitively expensive for the average student. The flexibility of online learning allows parents to study and attend class at home on a schedule that works around their child’s needs.
Online learners are spared the expense of having to buy expensive textbooks for their classes and can instead rent eBooks at a reduced cost. In some cases, online schools even provide laptops to their students with all necessary materials preloaded.
Financing Your Online Education
Regardless of whether you plan to study online or on-campus, you are probably concerned about how you will finance your education. The first step for all students is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students who complete the FAFSA and meet the general eligibility criteria can receive federal financial aid in the form of loans, grants, and scholarships.
Grants and scholarships are the most desirable forms of financial aid, as they are free money that does not need to be paid back. The most common type of grant is the Federal Pell Grant, which currently offers just under $6,000 for the 2017-2018 academic year. Pell grants are awarded to undergraduate students who are in need of financial aid. Scholarships vary from school to school and can be based on academic performance, financial need, or other criteria. Student loans often make up at least some portion of a financial aid package and can include subsidized federal loans, such as Perkins loans, that have low interest rates and do not accrue interest while the student is in school.
In addition to loans, scholarships, and grants, many larger companies offer tuition reimbursement as part of their benefits package to attract and retain talented employees. Students who have already entered the workforce should check with their human resources office to see they can take advantage of this benefit as well.
- Get Educated Distance Learning Scholarship
This $1,000 scholarship is awarded twice a year (in October and March) to U.S. residents who are completing an accredited online degree program. This scholarship is awarded based on merit, financial need, and a 500-word essay on “what an online college degree means to me.”
- SR Education Group Scholarship for Women
This $5,000 award is a needs-based scholarship designed specifically for female students enrolled in a private or public educational institution. Applicants must answer two questions in 500 words or less about their need for financial assistance and their plans for their future. The most well-written and persuasive responses are selected as finalists.
- Alpha Kappa Alpha Educational Advancement Foundation (AKA EAF)
AKA EAF offers two one-time scholarships to undergraduate college students who are sophomores or beyond. The merit-based award requires that students have a GPA of at least 3.0 and the needs-based award requires students to have a minimum GPA of 2.5. Applicants for both awards should also have demonstrated community involvement and service to be considered.
- eLearners Military Scholarship
Applicants for this $1,000 one-time scholarship must be active duty military personnel, an honorably discharged veteran, or a spouse from any branch of the military. This scholarship is awarded based on a 250-word response to the question “how has your military service better prepared you to enhance your education?”
- Association for Non-traditional Students in Higher Education (ANTSHE)
ANTSHE offers several scholarships in various amounts to non-traditional students attending an accredited college or university degree program. Applications must be at least 23 years old and meet at least one of several non-traditional student criteria, such as being a parent, working part-time, or having a low income.
Find Affordable Online Colleges
Because affordability plays such an important role in deciding to pursue online education, we have assembled a list for prospective college students of the cheapest online colleges and universities. Keep in mind that even the cheapest online college can offer a high-quality education. We have rounded up online colleges with tuition that is less than $500 per credit hour.
We have rounded up online colleges with tuition that is less than $500 per credit hour.
*The schools listed above are sponsored. Sponsored school listings are distinct paid advertisements and are clearly marked with a “SPONSORED” or “FEATURED” tag to distinguish them from editorially ranked schools. Learn more about how rank schools or contact us with questions.