Among the many factors students must consider when enrolling in an online college, cost is typically high on the list. Understanding how much tuition for an online college is and what other expenses they should consider will help students and families make wise choices regarding what they spend for a degree.
According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of earning a bachelor’s degree online is $51,091, and the average per-credit tuition rate is $402. However, these numbers are just a small part of the story. Many factors influence how much tuition is and the overall cost of online college. This article will break down how schools set their tuition rates, other expenses to budget for, and how to save money on paying for an online degree.
Factors that Impact Tuition for Online Colleges
Public vs. private institutions
One of the key determinants of how much an online college will cost is whether it’s a public or private institution. Public universities receive state and federal funding to help subsidize costs and make them more affordable, particularly for individuals who live in the state where the school is located. Private institutions don’t rely on government funds and must earn all their revenue from tuition, donations, investments, and other sources.
Tuition tends to be higher at private schools. The Education Data Initiative reports that at private universities, the cost of an online bachelor’s degree averages $60,593. Meanwhile, an online bachelor’s at a public university costs $38,496 for students with in-state residency status.
However, tuition rates at public universities can also vary widely between states. In Vermont, the average annual tuition at four-year public institutions is $17,083; in Florida, it’s $4,463.
Student residency status
Public institutions typically charge different tuition rates for students based on where they (or their families) live. Since state tax dollars fund public institutions, state residents are given a reduced tuition rate since their taxes have also contributed to the education system. Out-of-state or non-resident students don’t receive a subsidized education and are usually charged higher tuition. Because private schools don’t receive state funding, they charge students the same tuition, regardless of residency.
While the cost of an online bachelor’s degree averages $38,496 for in-state public university students, out-of-state students can expect to pay an average of $54,183, the Education Data Initiative reports.
However, as online education expands, some public universities have started charging the same tuition for all remote students, regardless of where they live. Students considering public colleges should inquire whether they are eligible for in-state tuition because they’re remote students. Students can also ask if schools are part of a regional reciprocity agreement.
Non-profit or for-profit institution
In the U.S., there are two types of statuses for higher education institutions — non-profit and for-profit.
Like any type of non-profit organization, a college must reinvest all its revenue into the institution, including staff and faculty salaries, infrastructure, facilities, student services, and more. All public universities and most private schools in the U.S. are non-profits.
Meanwhile, for-profit schools are designed to earn money for investors and shareholders. Whatever revenue they earn doesn’t have to go back into the institution. For-profit schools often show the lowest levels of student investment among the different types of institutions. In the U.S., many technical and career/vocational schools are for-profit.
Tuition rates may also vary based on whether a school is a non-profit or for-profit. For example, in the 2021-22 academic year, average tuition was $37,222 at four-year non-profit private colleges and $15,518 at four-year for-profit private schools.
However, students also need to consider the value of the degree they’re earning. Even though a for-profit school might charge lower tuition than a non-profit, for-profit colleges are driven by the bottom line. This business model can impact the quality of students’ education, affecting their future employment and educational opportunities. Students considering a for-profit college should carefully review the school’s accreditation status, retention, graduation and job placement rates, and curriculum to ensure their spending is worth it.
Another influential factor is what type of degree a student is earning. Undergraduate degrees such as associate and bachelor’s degrees tend to have a lower per-credit cost than more advanced degree programs, like master’s and doctoral programs.
Undergraduate courses may require fewer resources than specialized graduate courses. They may also be open to more students, spreading the cost among more people. Graduate course instructors also tend to be more experienced and may command a higher salary than those teaching undergraduate courses.
It’s also common for schools to have tuition discounts for students who are veterans, active-duty military service members, and their family members. Every school has different parameters for military discounts, but they usually come as reduced tuition. Students in this category should contact their school’s financial aid or military services office to inquire about these discounts.
Additional Costs for Online College
Tuition is one of several costs students must budget when planning for college.
Most schools charge additional fees, either on a one-time, annual, or per-term basis, to help cover additional costs or activities. Schools may charge online students fees for virtual classroom technology, academic resources like digital libraries and tutoring, and labs.
Most schools also charge application fees when students apply. Although this is only a one-time fee, students planning to apply to multiple schools should determine a budget for how much they can spend on applications.
Computers and other technology are essential for all students, but online students must have reliable equipment, as they don’t have the benefit of on-campus computer labs and tech support. Before starting their program, students should confirm any specs required by their program, including webcams and microphones for live virtual classes or presentations. Students must also have fast, reliable internet access so they can attend virtual classes, download lessons and course materials, and be on time submitting assignments.
Books and course materials
Online courses may still require books in hard copy or ebook format. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average college textbook costs $105. Depending on how many classes a student takes and how many books each requires, students can find themselves adding several hundred dollars to their costs each term.
Depending on the degree program, students may be required to fulfill in-person requirements, such as an internship, practicum, or clinical rotation, even if their coursework is online. Common programs that include this type of on-site experience include nursing, counseling, and teaching. When researching programs, students should inquire about these requirements, and budget accordingly. Additional expenses may include covering transportation costs to and from an experiential learning site or preparing for wages lost from their regular job while they complete these requirements.
Ways to Save Money with an Online College
One of the benefits of an online college is that there are several ways that they can help students save money.
By not living on or near their college’s campus, online students have much more flexibility with where they live and their day-to-day expenses. Students enrolled in programs at schools in expensive locations like New York or San Francisco can live in an area with a lower cost of living. They also aren’t required to pay for a meal plan or on-campus student activities fees.
By learning from home, students also save the money they would spend to travel to and from campus, including gas, wear-and-tear on their car, parking, or public transit fees.
For those caring for children, elderly family members, or others, attending school online can also help cut expenses needed for outside caregivers. Because students don’t need to be away from those they care for as much and can work around others’ schedules, students may not need to rely on daycare, babysitters, home care workers, or others.
The flexibility and convenience of online learning also make it easier to continue earning money while earning a degree. Depending on the area of study and the type of program selected, online students can have a steady income through a part-time or full-time job. A bonus is if the student’s employer offers tuition assistance benefits to help students pay for school.
How to Pay for Online College
Students preparing to enroll in an online college should schedule a time to explore all available avenues for financial support for their degree. Contact the school’s office of financial assistance to confirm tuition and fees and discuss the school’s financial aid options. Most online colleges award scholarships and grants to students. As long as a student is attending an accredited online school, they should be eligible for the same financial aid opportunities as students at brick-and-mortar schools.
Common options include:
- Federal student loans — The U.S. Department of Education operates the nation’s federal student loan program, which provides loans to undergraduate and graduate students to pay for tuition and other education-related expenses. Congress sets interest rates and repayment terms for federal student loans. Different types of loans include subsidized, unsubsidized, and PLUS loans. All money students borrow must be repaid with interest, although some programs are available to forgive federal student loans. Students apply for federal student loans using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
- Private education loans — These loans are offered by private lenders such as banks, credit unions, or other agencies. Individual lenders set their interest rates and repayment terms based on factors like personal credit and market trends. Because of this, private student loans are often more expensive in the long term than federal student loans. All money students borrow through private education loans must be repaid with interest.
- Scholarships — Scholarships are considered gift aid, which doesn’t require repayment. Most schools award need-based and merit-based scholarships. Schools may require students to complete the FAFSA to be considered for scholarships, especially those based on financial need. Students should also explore external opportunities for scholarships, including non-profits, professional development organizations, religious and community groups, and more.
- Grants — Similar to scholarships, grants are considered gift aid that doesn’t require repayment. The federal government offers two types of grants. Pell Grants are awarded to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need, while students can receive a TEACH Grant for completing an eligible educator preparation program and teaching for four years post-graduation. Individual schools may also offer their own grants based on financial need or merit.
- Work-study — Another federal financial aid program, work-study refers to a school-affiliated job in which the federal government pays the student’s wages. Students are awarded work-study as part of their financial aid package. The money students earn from work-study jobs doesn’t require repayment, and work-study is available to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students.
- Fellowships/assistantships — This type of financial support is most often awarded to graduate students, either at the master’s or doctoral level. However, there may be programs that offer fellowships for undergraduates. Fellowships may be granted by the school or an external organization to support a student’s study or research. They may or may not have particular work requirements. Assistantships are typically offered by the school and provide students with a stipend in exchange for work hours as a teaching or lab assistant.
- Payment plans — Many schools offer payment plans, which allow students to pay their tuition in installments rather than upfront at the beginning of the term. While this won’t lower the overall cost of tuition for an online college, it can help decrease the cost burden on students, especially those paying out of pocket.
The Best Online Colleges
One of the best ways students can ensure they’re getting the most for their money when they earn an online degree is to attend an accredited online college. Accredited online colleges offer high-quality education that employers value as much as in-person degrees.