The average cost of an online bachelor’s degree was $51,091 in 2021, according to EducationData.org.
However, many factors influence what schools charge and what students pay for tuition, meaning the cost could be higher or lower depending on the specific school. A variety of resources and strategies are available to assist students in paying for college and minimizing out-of-pocket expenses. Also, students need to consider factors other than price when determining whether or not an online bachelor’s degree is an appropriate choice for them.
Factors that Impact the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree
There are two ways to determine what an online bachelor’s degree costs — what institutions charge and what students actually pay. Several factors influence both aspects of how much an online degree costs.
The primary factor that impacts what a school charges is whether it’s a public or a private institution. Tuition is typically cheaper at public universities, which receive state and federal funding. However, online students need to keep in mind that public universities often charge out-of-state students a higher tuition rate.
According to EducationData.org, in 2021, the average cost of an online bachelor’s degree at public universities was $38,496 for in-state students and $54,183 for out-of-state students. Online bachelor’s degrees cost an average of $60,593 at private universities.
Other factors influencing a school’s tuition price include reputation, ranking, location, and size.
The other side of the conversation about cost focuses on what students actually pay. As mentioned above, where a student lives is relevant if they’re attending a public university. They’ll likely have a lower tuition rate if they live in the state where the school is located, although many schools charge online students the same tuition rate regardless of where they live.
Another key influence is financial aid, including loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study, which can reduce the cost of an online program. An online bachelor’s degree will also cost less for students with tuition assistance benefits from an employer or active-duty or veteran military service members.
Online College Costs Other Than Tuition
When students consider the cost of an online bachelor’s degree, they typically focus on tuition. But there are other costs associated with attending school virtually that students should also keep in mind when creating their budget for school.
- Technology — All students rely on tech like computers and Wi-Fi, but for online students, having reliable hardware, software, and internet access is critical for class attendance and participation, submitting assignments, and taking exams. Students should invest in a good quality computer, audio, and webcam and confirm that their Wi-Fi can handle live streaming and video playback.
- Fees — Another common additional cost is fees colleges charge students on top of their tuition. For online students, these fees can cover things like technical support, online student services, access to library resources, and more.
- Textbooks and learning materials — Students also need to budget money for textbooks (either in hard copy or digital format) and other instructional materials.
- Travel costs — Some online programs have in-person components that may require travel to campus or another on-site location. For example, education students must complete student teaching in a school, while nursing students must participate in clinical rotations. Students should be clear on any in-person requirements for their programs before starting and factor associated costs into their budgets.
- Application fees — In many cases, students must pay application fees before they are accepted into an online bachelor’s program. The average application fee is $50, which can quickly add up for students applying to multiple schools.
How to Pay for an Online Bachelor’s Degree
Many resources exist to provide money for students to obtain their bachelor’s degrees or help students find money to pay for school. The resources listed below are available to all students, regardless of the college or program they’re attending.
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
Commonly known as the FAFSA, this free online application is the tool the U.S. Department of Education uses to determine eligibility for various types of financial aid from the government. For undergraduate students, this type of financial aid includes Direct Subsidized Loans, Parent PLUS Loans, Federal Pell Grants, TEACH Grants, and federal work-study. Many schools also use information from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for additional financial aid and scholarships. Students and families can get more information at StudentAid.gov.
Established in 1994, FinAid.org is a free comprehensive online resource for student financial aid information, tools, and tips. Students and families can plan for tuition and loan repayments using tools to calculate the cost of college, expected family contribution, and project loan repayments. They can also get guidance for completing the FAFSA and understanding financial aid award letters. FinAid.org’s articles break down all aspects of the college financial aid process, with advice for maximizing money and avoiding common mistakes.
Students seeking scholarships to help pay for their online bachelor’s degree should be sure to check in with FastWeb. This leading online higher education resource has a searchable scholarship directory that collates scholarship opportunities from hundreds of sources. Students can sort scholarships based on specific demographics or situations, including college freshmen, non-traditional, adult, and returning students, LGBTQ+ students, and more. Students can get personalized scholarship recommendations by creating a free profile, making the search process easier and more efficient.
Scholly is a mobile app for researching scholarship opportunities, ideal for students on the go. Students can enter their educational and professional backgrounds, accomplishments, interests, and more, into their Scholly profile. The app then uses AI technology to match students with suitable scholarships, fellowships, and grant opportunities based on their profiles. They also regularly offer drawings and contests to help users access more money for school. Scholly is available on both Apple and Android platforms.
Employer Tuition Assistance
Students who are working while attending college online should find out if their employers offer tuition assistance benefits. Increasingly, some of the nation’s largest employers, including Amazon, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Verizon, are offering employees money to help cover tuition and education costs. In most cases, this comes in the form of tuition reimbursement, where students pay upfront for classes, then are reimbursed by their employer for all or some of their tuition after successfully completing their class.
Six Ways to Save Money in an Online Bachelor’s Program
For cost-conscious students and families, there are many ways to save money on an online bachelor’s program, according to College Counselor Dana Marvin.
Tip #1: Be realistic about what you can afford to pay
“I have conversations every year with students and their families about how the best school is always the one that fits the needs of that particular student,” Marvin says. “If attending a certain pricy college will put a student or family into major debt and require potentially dangerous financial decisions, such as withdrawing from a retirement account early, it may mean a hard conversation of choosing a different school. “
Tip #2: Explore all avenues for "free money" before considering loans
“Free money” includes scholarships, grants, and tuition assistance – basically, any money for school that doesn’t have to be repaid. Marvin encourages students to seek out these types of funding before turning to loans. “Scholarships and grants, both from the school and from outside organizations, can either lower the cost of the loan the student needs to take out, or best-case scenario, completely cover the cost!”
Tip #3: Sign up for a payment plan
Many schools offer payment plans, which allow students to spread out tuition payments over the term, rather than pay in one lump sum. This can be beneficial for students who are working while earning their degree, as they can set aside money at regular intervals to pay their tuition.
Tip #4: Take out federal student loans before private loans
“If you qualify for federal loans, take those before looking into private loans,” Marvin says. “Federal loans are great because qualification doesn’t depend on a credit score, there are income-driven repayment plans, and there are loan forgiveness programs the student can look into.” If private loans are necessary, Marvin recommends shopping around to multiple lenders for the best interest rate.”
Tip #5: Only borrow what's necessary
Regardless of how much in loans students qualify for, they should only borrow as much as they need to cover their tuition and expenses, Marvin says. “Remember, every dollar you take out in a loan will not only be paid back, but with interest!”
Tip #6: Begin repaying loans before graduating
On the topic of repaying loans, Marvin reminds students that they don’t have to wait until they graduate to begin doing so. “Let’s say you make an extra few hundred dollars during a summer job, or your parents get a big bonus from work,” Marvin says. “You can use that money to start paying off your loans while you’re still in school! Even paying off a few hundred or thousand dollars before finishing school can make a huge difference to those loan amounts post-grad.”
The Pros and Cons of an Online Bachelor’s Program
It’s important for students to consider all the various advantages and disadvantages when deciding between a traditional or online bachelor’s degree.
The flexible nature of online learning makes it more convenient for students, especially those working, raising kids, or fulfilling other obligations that make it difficult to attend classes at a specific location and time. Many online programs are asynchronous, meaning students can access their lessons and coursework whenever is most convenient for them.
Thanks to online learning, students are no longer restricted to the program offerings at the colleges in their geographic location, nor do they have to relocate to attend the program of their choice.
For students working full-time or living with a disability, online classes can make learning more accessible. Attending classes from anywhere, without commuting, is a significant advantage of online bachelor’s programs.
Not compatible with all learning styles
Online learning relies on instruction methods like lectures, readings, and videos. While this works for some students, individuals who learn better through hands-on engagement may struggle. Additionally, to succeed in an online program, students need to be self-motivated, disciplined, and organized without the accountability of learning in person.
Requires technological savvy
Because technology is such a big component of virtual learning, students need to be comfortable with technical aspects like setting up hardware and troubleshooting connectivity issues.
Although programs have developed ways for students to communicate with classmates and faculty, nothing truly replicates the ability to create connections, like being in the same physical classroom or having a spontaneous on-campus interaction. Online students may also miss out on career development and socializing opportunities provided by on-campus clubs and events.
The Best Online Bachelor’s Programs
Learn more about online bachelor’s degree programs with Intelligent.com’s list of the best online bachelor’s degree programs of 2023.