Most Affordable Online Colleges & Degrees
Higher education can be an invaluable asset to students who are looking for professional advancement, higher wages, or a change in their career paths. Online programs are strong options for those who are also looking for flexibility when working toward a degree. OnlineU aims to support students in their personal and professional endeavors by highlighting the most affordable colleges offering online degrees at the associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels.
To help students make informed, cost-effective decisions about their online education, we also created a best affordable ranking that considers both upfront tuition costs and future earning potential. Four of the best affordable online schools are featured below. On this page you'll also find an introduction to online learning as well as information on how to find an affordable program and choose an online degree.
- Median annual tuition rates for online programs at the master's and bachelor's levels are only about $1,000-$2,000 higher at private institutions. At the doctoral level, the median tuition is actually lower for private institutions; whereas at the associate level, private tuition is almost double.
|# 1||University of North Carolina at Pembroke||$5,067|
|# 2||Clayton State University||$5,079|
|# 3||Valdosta State University||$5,463|
|# 4||Kennesaw State University||$5,562|
|# 5||Georgia Southern University||$5,646|
|# 1||Georgia Institute of Technology||$2,700|
|# 2||Eastern Illinois University||$3,438|
|# 3||Midway University||$3,750|
|# 4||American College of Education||$3,760|
|# 5||Augusta University||$4,140|
|# 1||Allen County Community College||$1,920|
|# 2||Clovis Community College - NM||$2,664|
|# 3||Georgia State University-Perimeter College||$2,850|
|# 4||Albany State University||$2,945|
|# 5||Western Nebraska Community College||$3,225|
How Do Our Manually Collected Tuitions Compare to Widely Published Government Data?
Most college rankings use tuition information from the U.S. Department of Education's database, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems (IPEDS). The federal government gathers information from all colleges, universities, and technical schools across the country that participate in federal financial aid programs and records their information in the IPEDS database.
When comparing our manually researched tuition rates for online programs to IPEDS data, we found that IPEDS tuition rates were sometimes more than double what an online student could expect to pay.
This data from IPEDS is limited because the government doesn't track tuition rates for online students. Instead, they report tuition rates for each school as a whole. Most schools primarily serve campus-based students, and frequently have different rates for online programs. That's why we research online-specific rates, to provide a more accurate resource for online students to easily compare schools based on cost.
When comparing our manually researched tuition rates for online programs to IPEDS data, we found that IPEDS tuition rates were sometimes over 30% higher than what an online student could expect to pay. These differences exist because IPEDS collects one single tuition rate per degree level at each school, which usually reflects how much campus-based students pay. However, many schools charge different rates for online programs, which is not reflected in the IPEDS data. While this government data is reliable and useful for most research on traditional higher education pathways, it doesn't paint a clear picture for online students, which is why we do our own tuition collection.
Without breaking the cost of a degree down by online and on-campus rates, prospective students don't have enough information available to weigh their options and evaluate what the best educational route is for them.
This is especially important given the fact that enrolling online is often more affordable than traditional programs. When we compared median tuition rates for online and campus-based bachelor's degrees from 2017 to 2021, we found that students who attend on campus might pay twice as much as online students.
Online Bachelor's Degrees
Our research shows that tuition rates published on IPEDS were as much as 34% higher than true online tuition rates for in-state undergraduate students. For out-of-state students, some IPEDS rates were more than double what online students would really pay per year at that school for a bachelor's degree. This is because online students can often pay the in-state tuition rate.
|School||OnlineU Tuition||IPEDS In-State||Difference||IPEDS Out-of-State||Difference|
|Valdosta State University||$5,463||$6,583||21%||$17,638||223%|
|Kennesaw State University||$5,562||$6,436||16%||$17,690||218%|
|Georgia Southern University||$5,646||$6,485||15%||$17,539||211%|
|University of Wisconsin-Green Bay||$6,298||$7,873||25%||$16,091||155%|
|University of Missouri at Saint Louis||$7,891||$10,573||34%||$27,972||254%|
Online Master's Degrees
For a master's degree, the cost-per-credit can vary widely from program to program at one school. Because IPEDS shows one single tuition rate for all graduate degrees at a given school, this causes issues for master's students looking to evaluate degree options.
The Georgia Institute of Technology, also known as Georgia Tech, is a great example of this. The cost-per-credit for graduate programs ranges from $180 for computer science to $1,100 for a master's degree in aerospace engineering.
|Georgia Tech: Cost-per-Credit Differences|
|Aerospace Engineering: $1,100|
|Applied Systems Engineering: $1,100|
|Computer Science: $180|
|Manufacturing Leadership: $1,100|
At OnlineU, we publish an overall list of the most affordable online master's degrees that shows one tuition rate for all online programs as a general guideline to help students explore their options at a higher level. However, we also rank the most affordable online degrees for 80 different master's programs and use tuition rates for each program to ensure students have access to the most accurate information for their field of study.
How Do Online Tuition Rates at Public and Private Institutions Stack up by Degree Level?
It's widely believed that attending a private school is much more expensive than enrolling in public institutions, and this is often true for students who enroll on campus. However, limited data is available on whether or not the same is true for online programs.
We wanted to put that theory to the test to find out if private colleges and universities are more expensive for online students than enrolling at a public institution. Here's a look at the data:
Online Bachelor's and Master's Degree Programs
We found that online students typically only pay slightly more at private colleges than their peers at public institutions – for bachelor's and master's degrees.
- The median annual tuition rate for online bachelor's degrees is only $1,027 higher at private schools than public schools.
- Master's students at private schools only pay $2,222 more per year for online master's degrees than online students at public colleges and universities.
- We spot-checked 100 individual schools that offer online and on-campus programs to compare tuition rates. We found that 96% of private schools offer lower rates for online programs than campus-based degrees.
Many students don't consider applying to private schools because of the popular belief that they're more expensive, and for campus-based students, the sticker price often is. However, these findings highlight the fact that the cost of an online degree from a private school can actually be comparable to what online students pay at public institutions.
This is an important piece of the puzzle for students weighing their options and choosing a degree, especially given that students at private schools often earn higher salaries. We evaluate schools based on alumni earnings by program on our sister site, GradReports. Our Salary Scores show how alumni earnings stack up against peers from the same programs at other universities to help students compare options for higher education.
We found that, on average, private schools have higher Salary Scores than public schools, meaning alumni from private colleges typically earn more than public college graduates. Private schools at the bachelor's level have a median Salary Score of 50.92, whereas public colleges have a median score of 42.72.
Our findings for master's students were similar, with a median Salary Score of 49.24 for private schools at the master's level, compared to 42.1 for public schools. This suggests that attending a private college may increase earning potential for undergraduate and graduate students. Given this, paying slightly higher tuition rates for an online degree at a private institution may pay off in the long run, and is likely more cost effective than most students realize.
Online Doctoral Degree Programs
Our research shows that online programs at private schools are often more affordable for students pursuing their doctorate, and the type of school they attend – public vs. private – isn't likely to have a significant impact on their earning power after graduation, though alumni from public online doctoral programs might earn slightly more.
- We found that the median tuition rate for doctoral students is $2,253 lower at private institutions than at public colleges and universities.
- When comparing earnings, we found that public universities have slightly higher Salary Scores than private ones at the doctoral level. The median Salary Score for doctorates at public institutions is 45.5, and the median score for private schools falls one point below that at 44.55.
Bachelor's and master's degrees are much more widely available in the online space, but there are a few online doctorates that are popular as well. These include the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) the Doctor of Education (Ed.D) and the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), frequently geared toward working professionals who are earning a terminal doctoral degree on top of their full-time job.
Online Associate Degree Programs
In contrast to other degree levels, the median annual tuition rate for online associate degrees is significantly higher at private colleges. The median rate for associate degrees at private colleges was almost double the rate for public colleges and universities.
- The median tuition rate for online associate degrees at private colleges is $6,324 more per year than public colleges at the associate level.
- Private college alumni tend to earn more with their associate degree than those from public schools. The median Salary Score for private online associate degrees is 61.41, compared to a median score of 52.79 for public institutions.
While you may pay more for a private online associate degree, it may also increase your earning potential after graduation. This distinction is important because many students go on to finish their bachelor's degree directly from an associate program and can save money by enrolling in a public institution at the associate level. For those planning to enter the workforce after graduating with an associate degree, however, a private college may be worth the higher tuition cost if it will result in a higher salary, though this depends on your current financial circumstances as well.
This difference in cost may be due to the fact that far fewer private schools offer associate programs than public schools do. Historically, associate degrees have been offered by public two-year institutions, including community and technical colleges. While private colleges have expanded associate degree programs in recent years, community and technical colleges designed with affordability in mind are still a popular option for associate programs.
Highlights of the Best Affordable Online Colleges
All Annual Tuitions Under $17,000, High Salary Scores
For students who want to make cost-effective decisions about higher education, looking at tuition alone might not be enough. You may also want to consider how much you can expect to earn post-graduation. To help you weigh both upfront tuition costs and future earning potential, we've determined a series of best affordable rankings for online associate, bachelor's, masters, and doctoral degrees using Salary Score. Salary Score ranks schools not by how much alumni earn overall but by how much alumni from each school earn compared to graduates from the same programs at different schools.
Below, we've highlighted four schools that each rank in at least one of our best affordable online degrees lists. Georgia Institute of Technology's Salary Score of 90.25 earned it the #3 spot on our list of best affordable online schools for obtaining a master's degree. Northeastern University Global Network (NUGN) is one of the best affordable colleges for online bachelor's degrees and has a tuition rate of $16,230. NUGN's comparatively high alumni salaries give it a Salary Score of 93.32.
The Georgia Institute of Technology ranks third on OnlineU's 2021 list of colleges offering the Best Affordable Online Master's Degrees. Georgia Tech has a Salary Score of 90 for its master's programs and has earned an especially high score of 93 in the field of computer and information sciences. Tuition for Georgia Tech's online master's degrees varies by program, but the M.S. in Computer Science is one of the most affordable choices. The cost per credit hour is $180 and full-time students take 15 credits per year, resulting in an annual tuition of $2,700.
Financial Support Overview
Georgia Tech provides some financial aid opportunities for graduate students. There are limited scholarship or grant options, but Georgia residents who live close to campus may be eligible for graduate research or teaching assistantships. In these programs, students either assist faculty with long-term research projects or with some of their teaching and grading duties in order to receive a tuition grant.
Online Student Resources
Villanova University is ranked #5 on OnlineU's list of colleges offering the 2021 Best Affordable Online Master's Degrees. The school's Salary Score is 87 for master's degrees, and a few of Villanova's online degrees earned especially high program scores. These include programs in business administration (96) and human resource development (93). Annual tuition for an online master's degree varies by program. One of the most affordable options is the Master of Arts in Classical Studies, which costs $820 per credit and requires 15 credits per year for full-time enrollment, for an annual tuition rate of $12,300.
Financial Support Overview
Villanova provides merit-based funding through each academic department. An online master's degree student can apply for a tuition grant, but awards vary at the discretion of the department. Graduate students can also pursue a graduate fellowship that pays for tuition in full, but this is only useful for local students because fellows are expected to work 15 hours per week on campus.
Online Student Resources
With a Salary Score of 86, the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) ranks #10 on OnlineU's 2021 list of the Best Affordable Online Bachelor's Degrees. The university earns programmatic scores between 95 and 100 for area studies, criminal justice and corrections, natural resources conservation and research, political science and government, and public administration. UMGC provides a Program Comparison Tool to help prospective students review similar programs side by side, such as the B.S. in Criminal Justice and the B.S. in Public Safety Administration. Annual tuition is $14,970, calculated by multiplying the per-credit rate of $499 by the number of credits expected of full-time students, which is 30.
Financial Support Overview
UMGC provides a range of scholarships to offset education costs. Students can pursue more than 100 donor-funded scholarships, each with unique eligibility criteria based on need, merit, or a student's background and experiences. There are also special scholarships for both out-of-state enrollees and for graduates of Maryland community colleges who are completing their bachelor's degrees at UMGC.
Online Student Resources
With a Salary Score of 94, Northeastern University Global Network (NUGN) ranks third on OnlineU's list of the Best Affordable Online Bachelor's Degrees in 2021. A few programs earned Salary Scores of 100, including bachelor of science degrees in leadership, project management, and digital communications and media. Each of NUGN's online bachelor's degrees is a degree-completion program intended for students who already have some college credits. Each degree features online coursework but requires an experiential learning component: a part-time internship, a full-time co-op, or a special project such as the Virtual PR Firm, which allows digital media students to publicize real companies' products and services. Annual tuition is $16,230, based on 15 credits at $541 each for full-time online students.
Financial Support Overview
NUGN offers students a range of financial aid options, including the Northeastern University Grant for students with financial need. The university guarantees this award over the life of an undergraduate's degree (at least four years) and promises to increase the percentage of covered tuition if prices rise. Bachelor's-completion students can also pursue scholarships, including the Dean's "Break Through" Scholarship for students nominated by a leader from their work or previous education.
Online Student Resources
Most Affordable Online Colleges by Popular Subjects
Online Associate Degrees
Online Bachelor's Degrees
Online Master's Degrees
Introduction to Online Learning
Whether you're thinking about earning a college degree or just taking a few college courses, going to school online is an option worth considering. Over the past couple of decades, it has become an increasingly popular choice. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about one-third of today's college students are engaged in some form of distance learning, with 16.6% of them opting to take all of their classes online.
E-learning classes usually use an online learning management system, such as Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle, to enable students to view and complete coursework over the internet, and classes can be delivered either in an asynchronous or synchronous format.
Before you sign up for classes, it's important to understand the options available to you. Many traditional, non-profit or state-operated community colleges and four-year universities give you the ability to earn associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral or professional degrees, as well as certificate programs, completely online. These educational institutions usually provide the same resources—such as financial aid, academic advising, tutoring, and library services—for online students as they do for on-campus students. There are also some non-profit schools that operate exclusively online, as well as for-profit schools offering online programs, and these institutions may or may not provide additional services.
E-learning classes usually use an online learning management system, such as Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle, to enable students to view and complete coursework over the internet, and classes can be delivered either in an asynchronous or synchronous format. Asynchronous classes typically allow you to log in at your convenience and submit coursework according to preset deadlines, while synchronous classes require you to log in on specific days and times so you can participate live. Some schools also feature hybrid or blended courses, which combine elements of on-campus courses with online coursework.
On this page, we're providing answers to all of your most important questions about online learning. We dive into the credibility and costs of online colleges, and how to choose the right type of online program that will help you meet your goals.
- You can earn associate, bachelor's, master's, doctoral, or professional degrees, as well as certificates, completely online.
Are Online Colleges Legitimate?
Wondering whether a degree from an online college or university will be considered legitimate is a valid question. If you're going to invest time and money into completing a program, you want to make sure your online degree will be respected among hiring managers and recruiters. You also want to ensure that it will be a stepping stone to a higher degree if you decide to continue your education. Although there are fraudulent businesses that simply sell college degrees—often referred to as "diploma mills"—there are also hundreds of legitimate online schools and programs providing real education and respected degrees.
The best way to determine whether an online degree is valid is to check the school's credentials. In addition to detailing the school's programs, graduation requirements, fees, and services, a college or university website should tell you whether the school is licensed and accredited, and by which agencies. (You can also double-check a school's credentials by visiting the U.S. Department of Education website or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation website.) If an institution's website is vague about these factors, or if it makes promises about getting a degree with little time or effort, it's probably best to bypass that school.
The Importance of Finding an Accredited Online Program
One of the most important qualities to look for when you're reviewing online program options is accreditation. To become accredited, a college or university must undergo an extensive, multi-year evaluation by an independent agency. The agency examines the school's programs, faculty, facilities, and student resources, comparing them against recognized standards of excellence before awarding accreditation to the school. The best online colleges are those that have been accredited by one of six authorized regional accrediting boards or by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.
Eligibility for financial aid is usually dependent on enrollment in an accredited school.
If you want to transfer credits you've earned at one college to another, it is likely that the second school will only accept credits from an accredited program.
Depending on the occupation you've chosen, you may need to earn additional certification or licensure after graduating, and your eligibility to do so may depend on whether you attended an accredited school.
A bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university is usually a prerequisite for earning an advanced degree.
OnlineU.org lists only accredited colleges and universities. We provide details about each school we rank, as shown below.
Finding Affordable Options for Online College
Is It Cheaper to go to College Online?
In general, going to college online is cheaper than attending an on-campus program.
However, this isn't always the case, as cost depends on the school and the program, and the per-credit tuition rates vary widely from school to school. Some charge slightly less per credit for online courses, while others charge the same. In addition, some colleges charge the same price for all online students, while others charge lower rates for in-state residents and higher rates for out-of-state residents, just as they do for on-campus students. Finally, online colleges may charge online students technology fees for taking distance education courses, although they will typically charge in-person students other fees for taking on-campus courses.
Ultimately, considering getting an online degree gives you more options to choose from beyond those available where you live. When you conduct a school search, you'll discover many affordable online degree options.
Cost of Online Programs
The total cost of an online degree varies depending on a number of factors, including program length and tuition rate. One way to get a more accurate comparison of online program costs is to determine per-credit tuition rates, and then multiply them by the number of credits required for the degree you'd like to earn. The cost per credit at the schools on OnlineU.org ranges from $81.21 to $2,075.
Associate degrees generally require about 50-60 credits to graduate, bachelor's degree programs average about 120-128, master's degrees range from 30 to 60, and doctoral programs require anywhere from 36 to 120 credits.
|Degree||Typical Number of Credits||Cost-Per-Credit of OnlineU Schools|
|Associate||50 - 60||$81.21 - $530|
|Bachelor's||120 - 128||$91.79 - $963|
|Master's||30 - 60||$170 - $2,075|
|Doctoral||36 - 120||$290 - $1,393|
If you expand your search beyond the most affordable options, you'll find online and on-campus tuition fees for some bachelor's degrees totaling more than $100,000.
Of course, to determine the total cost of earning an online degree, you should factor in other expenses as well. Nearly all students will need to allow money for books and other supplies, as well as yearly and one-time-only fees charged by many schools, such as application, technology, and graduation fees. Some students may also need to account for childcare expenses. Less commonly, online learners may be required to travel locally to fulfill a requirement for in-person training, or they may be required to go to campus occasionally for orientation, workshops, or practicums. Transportation and accommodations may need to be added to the total list of expenses.
Most students, however, do not pay the full cost of earning a college degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over the last 10 years or so, approximately 83% of full-time, first-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid, regardless of what type of college or university they attend. The amount of per-student aid awarded each year varies widely from smaller grants of about $2,000 to complete aid packages totaling as much as $27,000. If your financial aid package includes a student loan, you'll probably want to calculate the amount of interest you'll need to repay, and incorporate that into the total cost of your online degree. Keep reading for more information on financial aid, below.
Funding an Online Degree
One of the benefits of opting for an online degree is that it opens up more choices, enabling you to find accredited online schools in a wide range of price points. Nevertheless, you may still need or want financial assistance to fund your college education. The good news is that your decision to go to school online or in person does not affect your eligibility for aid. As long as you're enrolled in an accredited program and meet all other eligibility requirements, you may be able to receive some form of financial aid.
There are many types of financial aid available, some of which are sponsored by the government, some by private organizations, and some by the schools themselves. The best types are those that don't need to be paid back:
Many students are awarded scholarships, grants, and fellowships based on need or merit.
If you're getting an online degree at a school that's within driving distance of your home, you may be able to earn a portion of your college expenses through an on-campus work-study program.
If you're working full-time or even part-time, your employer may offer a tuition reimbursement program covering some or all of your tuition expenses, especially if you're pursuing a master's degree.
Some schools have partnerships with various types of organizations that provide tuition assistance to those organizations' members or employees.
If you are or have served in the military, or are a dependent of a military service member or veteran, you may be eligible for tuition discounts.
The least favorable financial aid option is a federal or private student loan because loans have to be paid back with interest, although a loan is a good option if you don't get enough funding from all of the other sources. If you agree to a loan, federal loans generally have lower interest rates than private bank loans.
A helpful place to learn more about financial aid is on the website of the school or schools you'd like to attend. School websites usually have at least one full page describing the types of aid they offer, such as scholarships for online students or students in particular degree programs. You'll also find contact information for the school's financial aid office so you can speak to an advisor directly. General information about federal aid, including details about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, is available at studentaid.gov.
Pursuing Higher Education For Free Online
Getting a college education for free certainly sounds appealing, and there are a couple of accredited online schools that are tuition-free. However, if you look closely at the financial details of these schools, you'll discover they charge other types of fees for using their services. It's important to fully understand all of the fees before deciding whether to attend this type of school.
However, if you're interested in taking courses purely for the sake of obtaining knowledge and not in pursuit of a degree, there are many free options. Some of the best-known schools—including Harvard, Wellesley, MIT, and many more—offer free online classes through platforms such as edX, Coursera, and Udemy. In some cases, you can opt to pay a small fee to obtain a certificate of completion.
Online Degrees and Programs
What Degree Can I Get 100% Online?
The full range of degree levels, from associate to bachelor's, master's, and doctoral or professional degrees, in a vast array of subjects can be earned entirely online. It may be more intuitive that subjects involving reading, writing, and discussion can be taught online. Yet in today's distance education environment, even courses involving lab work, like chemistry, biology, and other applied sciences, can be delivered using alternative methods. Many schools use a combination of at-home lab kits and virtual simulations to enable students to learn these subjects 100% online. However, to earn some degrees, you may need to complete a moderate percentage of your coursework in person at a facility near your home or possibly on campus. Nursing, social work, and counseling, for example, all require students to complete a minimum number of clinical hours in order to gain hands-on experience working with others. Schools offering these courses online often have a facilitator who can assist you in making the necessary arrangements to fulfill these graduation requirements.
Choosing an Online Program
Given that many programs are offered in the online format, choosing a subject to study in college and deciding which type of degree to earn are important decisions to make.
Some questions that may help you kick off this process are:
- What are you passionate about?
- What are your natural aptitudes? What do you have an affinity for?
- What are your career and salary expectations after graduating?
If you have a specific career path or occupation in mind, one place to continue your research is on the Occupational Outlook Handbook website provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This extensive site can provide you with information on preparing for a particular career, and can help you decide which level of education you'll need to meet your future goals.
Finally, you may not be sure of what you'd like to study, even after enrolling in a school. At the earliest stages of your college education, it is often okay to take time deciding on your field. One option for online undergraduate students who are unsure about future career goals is to choose a degree like psychology that can be used to enter a diverse range of fields, from counseling and social work to marketing and human resources management.
Are Online Colleges Worth It?
You may be wondering whether the time, energy, and money you invest in getting a college degree in general—and an online degree in particular—will pay off for you in the long run. While that decision is entirely personal based on your personal circumstances, data supports the value of a college education.
In today's job market, getting a degree levels the playing field, allowing you to compete against the majority of other job candidates. Other advantages of earning a degree include the prospect of higher salaries, an increased likelihood of landing professional jobs with valuable benefits, such as health insurance and paid vacation time, and more chances for promotion into higher-paying positions.
More options. If you'd like to stay local while attending school, you probably only have a handful of choices in your area. By opening yourself up to online degree programs, you now have dozens of options. You're more likely to find online schools offering the program and concentration you want in a broader range of prices.
Respected credentials. As long as you attend a regionally accredited college or university, your online degree will command the same level of respect from hiring managers as a traditional degree. Many managers understand that to be accredited, the school must demonstrate that its online programs require the same academic rigor and yield the same outcomes as on-campus programs.
Flexible scheduling. One advantage of pursuing a degree online is that you can create your own weekly routine, working your studies and homework assignments around all of your other work and family obligations.
Ultimately, only you can decide whether pursuing an online college degree program is right for you. Depending on your goals and resources, you may prefer to have the traditional, on-campus college experience, or you may want to bypass college altogether. It's just smart to explore all your options before making a choice.