2018 Guide to Affordable Online Colleges

According to online learning surveys conducted by the Online Learning Consortium, 5.8 million people enrolled in at least one online course in 2016 and that number has been growing exponentially over the years.

For the average American student, money is one of the most common priorities in this decision. Nearly 70 percent of graduates in the class of 2011 actually left school with debt averaging $26,000. This debt puts pressure on grads to find work quickly and pay back loans, sometimes leading them to compete for jobs for which they are overqualified.

Smart budgeting and careful financial planning can significantly offset the cost of attending one of the many excellent cheap online schools available; this directory of affordable colleges is designed to help you in that planning. Keep in mind that you can receive a high-quality education at all cheap online colleges.

How Much Does an Online Degree Cost?

According to The College Board, just in the last two years, tuition rose by 9% in the public four-year sector, 11% at public two-year colleges, and 13% at private, nonprofit four-year institutions. With tuition and fees continuing to rise, it might take a bit more research to find the institution and program that is right for you and your budget. There are plenty of cheap online colleges, but you need to be aware of possible scams before you choose a school based on tuition price alone. Accreditation needs to be carefully considered before choosing a school or program. The U.S. Department of Education states that the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality. So if a university does not have their accreditation information somewhere on their website, it’s best to look into another program elsewhere.

Featured Online Schools

Average Tuition and Fees and Room and Board in 2015 Dollars

Private Nonprofit Public Nonprofit
1980-81 $10,438 $2,320
1985-86 $13,551 $2,918
1990-91 $17,094 $3,492
1995-96 $19,117 $4,399
2000-01 $22,197 $4,845
2005-06 $25,624 $6,708
2010-11 $29,300 $8,351
2015-16 $32,405 $9,410

Source: The College Board

Price by Degree

Across the board, postsecondary degree programs become more expensive the further you choose to go in your studies. It doesn’t matter if the university you choose to attend is private or public. A master’s degree will almost always be more expensive than a bachelor’s degree and so on. But there are several things to consider before deciding whether or not to pursue a graduate degree. Depending on your degree, it can be financially advantageous to get a graduate degree, because it is possible that your earnings will be higher after you graduate. However, this is not always the case. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, those holding a bachelor’s degree earned on average more than those with a master’s or a doctoral degree, but those with a graduate degree were less often unemployed. If you are concerned about the financial outlook of your career path, it is beneficial to research your individual degree in the job market before making the decision to pursue a graduate degree at one of the many cheap online colleges available.

Price by Degree for Public In-State Institutions, 2015-16

Bachelor’s Master’s Doctoral
$7,350 $8,225 $10,345

Source: The College Board

Common Fees

When comparing prices, make sure you are taking into account all of the fees associated with a degree program. Not all do, but many online programs charge technology fees and even assessment fees. You should also be clear about whether or not your degree program is 100% administered through distance learning. If you see the phrase “low-residency,” it is likely that you will be required to spend at least some time on campus, and those fees can add up quickly. However, by choosing an online program, you will likely avoid other fees like parking passes, gym fees, room and board, and expensive dining plans for students living on campus.

Credit Overload Charges

Most colleges have a maximum amount of credit hours a student is permitted to take per semester. The maximum will depend largely on the institution and the individual program. If a student takes more than the maximum, credit overload charges will be applied, and the student will be charged per extra credit. There are exceptions to the rule. If a student’s program requires them to take more than the allotted credit hours, the fee can be waived. A student also may request special permission to take more than the maximum credit hours and still have the fees waived, but the circumstances for which a school will accept this vary. Generally, to get the most bang for your buck, you should take a full course load. Part-time class loads often will be more expensive than taking a full course load, because the classes will be charged per credit hour.

How Can I Save Money on Tuition?

There are many creative ways to save on your overall tuition cost, and choosing an online program is one of them. Choosing a college can be overwhelming, especially when you are trying to calculate all of the fees involved. Many schools offer a net price calculator, which estimates the total price of tuition and fees minus grants, scholarships, and education tax benefits you might receive based on various factors. The calculator is helpful because it can widen your choice of colleges, giving you access to a college you might not have otherwise considered.

Are Online Colleges Less Expensive?

The actual cost of tuition for online college programs is often the exact same as the on-campus tuition price, but choosing to pursue a program online can save money in other ways. Most college freshmen who are going to college directly from high school are required to live on campus for one year, and on-campus living can be really expensive. For example, during a nine-month academic year, the University of Georgia’s average seven-day meal plan costs $3,956, and living in the residence hall costs $6,104. Add books, gym fees, and access to online workbooks that are required for certain classes, and the money starts to add up.

For non-traditional students, especially students who may be continuing their college education while working a full-time job or caring for their children, transportation costs, parking passes, and child care can be expensive. Pursuing a degree online will allow you to complete your coursework on a more flexible schedule, completing work at whatever time of day is best for you. All of these factors may contribute to big savings while you’re completing your degree program.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Tuition

One of the biggest ways to save on college tuition is by choosing to go to a school in your home state. The average cost difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at a public university is $8,990 per semester. You also can save money by choosing a local school and living at home if you are still living with your parents, or avoiding having to move if you are living on your own. Moving costs also should be taken into account. Even the most affordable online colleges can be more expensive for out-of-state students.

If you really want to go out of state, it is worth looking into certain states’ reciprocity agreements. These are agreements between states which provide discounts to out-of-state residents. Many states have these programs, and they are worth looking into as early as possible, as they often fill up quickly.

Average Published Charges for Full-Time Students, 2015-16

Public In-State $7,350
Private Nonprofit $30,521

Source: The College Board

Financial Aid

Paying for college can be daunting, and one of the best ways to see what kind of financial aid you qualify for is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Federal Student Aid manages student financial assistance programs that provide grants, loans, and work-study funds to students applying for college or career school. Filling out the FAFSA is free, easy, and incredibly important for finding out what kind of financial aid you may qualify for. Below are several types of financial aid that may be available to you.

  • Loans: A loan is borrowed money that you must pay back with interest. Student loans are available through the federal government or from certain private institutions. Generally loans given by the federal government have lower interest rates.
  • Work-Study: The Federal Work-Study program provides part-time jobs to college students in order to help them earn money to pay for college expenses. Most of the time, the job will be somehow related to the student’s program of study.
  • Scholarships: Scholarships are usually merit-based funds given to students, and do not need to be paid back. There are thousands of scholarships from various organizations that are awarded to students based on many different reasons.
  • Grants: Grants are generally need-based and are awarded to students based on different factors. Federal grants can be based on general financial need, but there are also federal grant programs related to military service and the pursuit of a teaching career.


Finding scholarships can be overwhelming since there are so many of them. The following are a few to consider to get you started in your search:

How Does Accreditation Affect Affordability?

Accreditation is extremely important when considering your college education. When you are comparing college tuition, you will probably notice that non-accredited schools are cheaper, but choosing a non-accredited school is ultimately not worth it. Accreditation guarantees a certain standard of education, and it lets employers know that you’ve received that level of education. Accreditation also makes it easier for you to transfer between accredited schools. While there may be some difference between the classes accredited college will accept, it usually is not a problem to transfer and receive credit for the classes you have already taken.

Types of Accreditation

There are two ways schools are accredited: institutional accreditation and programmatic accreditation. Institutional accreditation generally applies to the entire institution, indicating that every part of the school is contributing toward the same goals. Programmatic accreditation is determined by evaluation of specific departments and programs. A college may possess institutional accreditation even though not all of its individual programs are accredited, which is fine for many degree programs. However, if you want to be sure an individual program is accredited, you should be able to find this information on a departmental website.

What Are Diploma Mills?

The U.S. Department of Education describes a diploma mill as as an entity that offers degrees, diplomas, or certificates for a fee with the promise of having to complete very little work for the program. Diploma mills are more interested in taking your money than they are with providing you with quality education and job training. If you see a school advertising itself as the cheapest online college or most affordable online school, or charges by the degree rather than by the class or semester, it is best to be especially wary. This absolutely does not mean that all online schools are diploma mills, but you can protect yourself from scams by checking the school’s accreditation. Remember that if a program sounds too easy and too good to be true, it likely is. The cheapest online colleges will ensure you receive all the education you need to launch your career.


The Directory of Schools provides all prospective students the tools you need to choose the best and most affordable online school for you. These schools all have online programs, so whether you just want to find cheap online colleges or you’re looking for a specific program, the Directory of Schools allows you to search for affordable accredited online schools that fit your specific goals and needs. You can use the filters to search by location, school type, or degree level. If you already know there is a school you want to look at, you can type the name of the school into the search bar to get stats and acceptance information on individual schools.


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