Rising tuition costs are a significant barrier to entry for people thinking about going to college. The cost of tuition, books, fees, housing, supplies, and other expenses makes paying for school a challenge for most students, even with financial aid.
Online college has rapidly grown in popularity in recent years as it offers more flexibility than traditional in-person programs. Students also turn to online college to save money while pursuing a degree.
But is online college actually cheaper than going to school in person?
While tuition rates are often comparable, online college may help you save money on transportation costs, housing, and fees.
Here’s a closer look at how costs can differ between online and in-person programs.
How Much Does Online College Cost?
The cost of online college varies from one school to another depending on factors like tuition, fees, books, and other expenses.
Tuition for online college classes is often comparable to in-person courses, but there are other fees to consider. For example, some schools charge technology fees for online classes, which can cost upwards of $200 per semester. Online students may also have to pay for textbooks and other materials, which can add up quickly.
According to EducationData.org, online degrees at public four-year colleges cost roughly $38,496 based on tuition. Private colleges, on the other hand, charge an average of $60,593 for online degrees.
Are Online College Classes Cheaper Than In-Person Classes?
In many cases, online college classes are cheaper than in-person classes. But the savings tend to stem from the cost of attendance outside of tuition.
Here are a few of the most significant factors that account for the differences in cost between online and in-person degree programs.
Based on the Education Data Initiative’s findings, the tuition cost of an online degree from a public university is about $37,500, marginally cheaper than the $38,496 for a comparable online degree.
However, when comparing tuition and the cost of attendance between online and in-person degrees at public universities, online degrees tend to cost $36,595 less over four years.
Private colleges tend to charge much less for online degrees than in-person alternatives. While EducationData.org found the average cost of an online degree from a private school to be $60,593, in-person degrees cost an average of $129,800.
“Fees” is a broad term that accounts for almost every expense outside of tuition, books, and room and board.
The fees you’re responsible for will depend on the college you attend and your specific program. These may include costs like lab access fees, club fees, activities, fitness facilities, technology fees, and meals.
With online college, students can avoid many fees associated with on-campus living, like meal programs and fitness facility fees. However, online students may have to pay for technology fees and software that on-campus students don’t have to worry about.
Books and supplies
Many college classes require students to purchase books. Even online students may have to pay for access to online versions of textbooks.
Supplies include things like notebooks, backpacks, a computer for online coursework, writing tools, and anything else you need on a day-to-day basis. Here is another way that online students can save a bit of cash, as many will be able to do without physical notebooks and writing supplies by only using their computers.
EducationData.org estimates that both online and in-person students can expect to pay about $1,295 per year for books and supplies.
Other Factors That Can Impact the Cost of Online College
While tuition, fees, and books and supplies make up the bulk of college-related expenses for online students, there are a few other things that can impact your education costs.
State residency can affect the cost of tuition for online college classes. Some schools offer discounted tuition for online students that are residents of the state the school is located in, while students from other states have to pay nonresident tuition.
Living expenses impact education costs for both online and in-person students; however, online students have more options, making it easier to save money.
For example, if your school is located in a major city, enrolling in online classes allows you the flexibility to move to a surrounding area where rent may be more affordable. Meanwhile, on-campus students may have to rent an apartment in the city or pay for on-campus housing if they don’t already live near the school.
Online students can also continue living at home while pursuing their degrees, completely offsetting the cost of room and board.
Distance learners save big on transportation costs compared to on-campus students.
According to EducationData.org, students who commute to college for on-campus classes pay $1,360 per year for transportation, while online students’ transportation costs are nonexistent.
How To Apply for Financial Aid Online
If you need help paying for online college, the first thing to do is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Submitting this application will determine your eligibility to receive federal aid through grants, loans, or work-study programs. This application needs to be completed for each academic year that you’ll be attending college.
Over $2 billion in federal student grants go unclaimed each academic year. By completing the FAFSA every year you plan to attend college, you can ensure you’re being considered for all federal financial aid opportunities.
Online students can also check their school’s website to look for more financial aid and scholarship opportunities for which they may be eligible.
Do Online Colleges Offer Scholarships?
Yes, online colleges offer both need-based and merit-based scholarships.
This means that you may be eligible to receive aid by demonstrating financial need or meeting specific educational requirements based on your standardized test scores, GPA, enrollment status, program choice, and more.
To find out what scholarships your school offers, visit the financial aid section of your school’s website.
You can also search for scholarships online using tools like the following:
- The U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search tool
- College Board’s scholarship search platform
- Your state grant agency
Local foundations and organizations also offer scholarships to students attending nearby universities and community colleges.
What Are the Pros & Cons of Online College?
If you’re still deciding whether or not online college is right for you, here are some pros and cons to consider before making your decision.
Pros of going to college online
Online college offers several unique advantages that might make it more desirable for some students, including:
Online students can choose between synchronous and asynchronous programs, and all coursework can be completed online. This makes it easier for students to balance school with work and other responsibilities.
Online college often ends up being cheaper than in-person college due to lower transportation and living expenses.
Enrolling in an online program gives you the opportunity to learn from anywhere in the country. As long as you have a stable internet connection, you can go to an online college.
Cons of attending an online college
Some of the disadvantages of attending an online college include the following:
While not always the case, some online programs offer less individual support for students. This is particularly true for asynchronous courses, which may not provide virtual office hours or opportunities to speak directly with instructors.
Lack of hands-on learning opportunities
Some students learn better through hands-on experience, which is something that online programs need to improve.
Many colleges offer fewer online courses than in-person courses. Depending on your major, finding a high-quality online program may be challenging.
Is Online College Worth It?
Whether or not online college is worth it depends on your personal goals.
Are you seeking a high-quality education and a degree so that you can start your career?
If so, online college can certainly be worth it, as accredited online schools offer the same great programs as traditional schools.
However, an in-person program may be the better option if you value the social interaction, networking opportunities, and on-campus activities offered by the traditional college experience.
Interested in a degree instead?
Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.