Your Guide to Affordable Online Colleges

ASO Staff Writers
Updated September 20, 2023
Edited by
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The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that, in 2021, more than 11 million online students were working towards their degrees. With the pandemic necessitating more remote learning than ever before, many students decided to continue online learning even after in-person classes resumed.

Before enrolling in an online college, you probably have some questions about what to expect, how much these programs cost, and how to find savings along the way. Keep reading to get answers and find helpful resources.

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How to Find an Affordable Online College

To figure out what makes a school truly affordable, you should make a list of all the expenses you expect to incur during your time in the program, as well as the money you will save. You should also take into account financial aid opportunities.

Check for Accreditation

Failing to attend a properly accredited online college can result in issues transferring credits, seeking licensure or certification, and/or finding work. Before enrolling in any online college, make sure it maintains active accreditation and has no pending issues.In addition to reviewing each school’s website, you can also use databases provided by the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Prioritize In-State Public Schools

Many students decide to attend a public school in the state they live in for the sake of affordability. This typically means they will pay less tuition than attending a public school as an out-of-state student.

Additionally, some online programs require you to visit the campus occasionally, which may be more challenging to attend if your college is out-of-state.

Similarly, some online colleges provide a discounted tuition rate, regardless of where you live. That said, you should always review the tuition policies of any school you consider, as not all offer discounts based on residency.

Compare Online Tuition Rates

Not all tuition policies are created equal. Make sure you review how rates are calculated before enrolling. While some schools charge per credit, others set a flat tuition rate based on each class or even how many classes you can complete over a set amount of time.

By comparing multiple schools’ tuition rates, you can calculate college costs and find out which school offers the most affordable option.

How Much Does Online College Cost?

Based on data from the NCES, the average annual net price for public, online college cost $12,980 during the 2020-21 school year. Below, we discuss the various costs associated with online college programs.

Average Annual Net Cost for Distance-Learning Only Colleges
Type of SchoolCost
All Schools$18,020
Public Online Colleges$12,980
Private Nonprofit Online Colleges$15,940
Private For-profit Online Colleges$20,980
Source: NCES


Tuition often accounts for the majority of a college budget. Many schools feature different tuition rates for out-of-state, in-state, and online students, with in-state and online students typically paying the lowest rates. Some schools extend in-state tuition to students regardless of their state residency.

Attending a public school often costs less than attending a private school because public schools benefit from government funds. For this reason, classes at public schools tend to include a higher student-to-faculty ratio.

Miscellaneous Costs and Fees

Online programs often feature fewer costs than in-person programs. As an online student, you can avoid costs like room and board, meal plans, and campus maintenance fees because you won’t be taking advantage of on-campus resources.

However, this can make it easy to overlook other costs like books, distance learning fees, and required technology. For example, while some colleges provide computers for individuals who cannot afford to buy one, most online schools expect and require you to have a computer and WiFi access. And you still will have to account for living expenses if you’re living on your own off-campus.

Additionally, college textbooks come with notoriously high prices. You may be able to rent or buy used books to save money, but you should still budget for these expenses, as the cost of textbooks and supplies often totals more than $1,000 per year.

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Resources for Calculating Your Tuition

College Cost Calculator

If you are more than a year or two away from college, tuition prices could be significantly more than today’s published prices. Use this calculator from Sallie Mae to find out what to expect for future tuition costs.

The College Board’s Net Price Calculator

Maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, this website is a clearinghouse of information regarding college prices. You can find out the average cost for specific degree programs, learn which institutions have the highest and lowest tuition and discover which colleges have runaway tuition rates.

My College Planning Team

Although only some of the services offered by My College Planning Team are free, the site’s blog provides an abundance of useful information regarding college affordability. Chicago-area residents can also attend free workshops hosted by the firm.

While we always encourage families to start saving as early as possible, it is never too late. There are always things you can do to save money.

4 Ways to Make Online College More Affordable

You can attend online college without breaking the bank by following the four ideas highlighted in this section.

1. Apply for Financial Aid

Financial aid can help you cover the cost of your education. You can even reduce college costs if you apply and receive grants, scholarships, and other types of awards that do not require repayment.

You can find scholarships and grants through federal and state agencies, nonprofits, professional associations, companies, and many other sources.

Alternatively, student loans can help you finance school and make it possible to graduate, but you’ll need to repay these — regardless of whether you finish school.

2. Choose an Accelerated Program

Accelerated online colleges make it possible to graduate more quickly than traditional programs, even if you enroll on a full-time basis. In the example of a bachelor’s degree, an accelerated program may allow you to graduate in three years rather than the standard four years. Accelerated programs can help reduce semester-based fees and make it possible for you to start earning an income more quickly.

3. Earn Credits at a Community College

Earning credits — or even a full associate degree — at a community college can help save you thousands of dollars. In-state tuition and fees at a two-year public college cost an average of $3,501 during the 2020-2021 school year, while in-state tuition and fees at a four-year college cost an average of $9,375, according to the NCES.

Some states even provide free community college for residents. You can typically transfer credits earned at a community college towards a bachelor’s degree, making it easy to continue your higher education journey and save money along the way.

4. Study Part-Time

For many learners, studying part-time allows them to pay less over time rather than taking out loans. Part-time means you can work while in school, allowing you to save money and put it towards educational costs.Studying part-time can mean you’ll be in school longer before graduating, but if your main focus is working and saving money so you don’t graduate with tons of debt, this could be a great option to consider.

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Types of Financial Aid

Even students who attend affordable online colleges can benefit from financial aid. You can pursue six main types of financial aid: scholarships, grants, fellowships, loans, work-study programs, and employer-sponsored programs. We discuss these types of aid below.


Many schools, foundations, and companies award scholarships to students based on factors like field of study, academic merit, and/or identity. Many scholarships are highly competitive, so it’s usually best to apply for several or focus your search on awards with limited applicant pools.

For example, applying for scholarships reserved exclusively for one major can increase your chances of receiving funds. Most scholarship applications require you to submit your transcripts, an essay, and multiple recommendation letters. Renewable scholarships may require you to maintain a minimum GPA.


Like scholarships, grants typically do not require repayment. While scholarships often feature academic requirements, like a minimum GPA, grants typically feature need-based requirements.

You must submit the FAFSA to qualify for federal grants. Dependents applying for a grant must submit their guardian’s tax information. Graduate students may receive grants from private organizations for a specific purpose, like completing a research project.


Colleges and universities typically offer fellowships to graduate students, but some schools may provide fellowships to undergraduate learners too. A fellowship allows you to receive either discounted tuition or payment in exchange for work or research related to your major.

Some fellowships require graduate students to teach a course to undergraduate students, while others may require students to work on a research project associated with the university. Some schools may refer to a fellowship as a graduate assistantship.


Loans require repayment, so you should pursue other types of financial aid before taking out a loan. Federal loans typically offer better interest rates and repayment plans than private loans. You can apply for federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans by submitting the FAFSA.

Subsidized loans do not require you to pay interest while you’re in school. Unsubsidized loans begin accumulating interest immediately. However, all federal loans give you a six-month grace period after graduation before requiring payments.

You can also apply for loans from banks and private companies. These loans often require higher interest rates than federal loans. They may also require a credit check and/or a cosigner.

Work Study

During work-study programs, you complete work for a university in exchange for reduced tuition or credit toward tuition. Work-study students typically must spend their earnings on education costs, like books and housing.

The federal government sponsors some work-study programs. To qualify for a federally funded work-study program, you must fill out the FAFSA.

Employer-Sponsored Programs

You may qualify for employer-sponsored education funds. Many companies set aside money for full-time employees who want to further their education in a field that will benefit the business. These programs may cover some or all of your education costs.

Certain employer-sponsored programs require you to commit to working for the company for a set number of years after graduation. Additionally, some employers may only pay for you to attend approved programs at particular schools.

Frequently Asked Questions About Affordable Online Colleges

Is online college more affordable than traditional college?

It depends. For many students, online college ends up being cheaper than traditional college as they can avoid many of the fees and expenses associated with online learning.

For instance, studying online means you don’t need to pay for a parking pass, facilities access, meal plans, dormitories, or transportation, among other common expenses.Additionally, if you attend an online school in a place with a higher cost of living, you can live outside that area and pay less in overall expenses than if you were studying in person.

What is the average cost of an online college?

The cost of online college depends on the type of school you select. A public online college currently costs an average of $12,980 per academic year, while a private nonprofit school costs an average of $15,940.

Private for-profit colleges currently cost the most, with an average of $20,980. If you want to stick to a budget, attending a public online school in your current state of residence is the cheapest option.

How does online college work?

Online colleges typically work in the same way as traditional in-person colleges, except that you can learn from your computer at any location. You still take courses, complete assignments and projects, and receive grades. After meeting all requirements, you qualify to graduate and earn your diploma.

Some online programs use asynchronous learning, meaning you can watch pre-recorded lectures at times best suited to your schedule. Others use synchronous learning, which means you’ll need to log in at specific times to attend live lectures.

Next Steps

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