Online college learning has become mainstream. The vast majority of colleges and universities provide at least a few online course offerings, and many have fully online two- and four-year college degree programs – allowing students to earn a degree without setting foot in a classroom.
One of the biggest reasons for the boom in online college is the flexibility it offers. For many students, the flexibility of an online college education can also result in notable cost savings, making a college degree more affordable. Online class tuition isn’t always cheaper, but with the right choices, students can get a degree for a lower cost than their on-campus classmates. Let’s take a look at the true costs – and savings – a student can expect from online college.
In order to understand what online college really costs, it’s important to break down the various components of that cost. Here’s a brief overview.
When it comes to the cost of college, there’s a difference between the “sticker” or listed price and the “actual” or net price. Net price is the sticker price less any gift-based aid (financial aid that does not need to be paid back) and tax benefits. Because student loans must be paid back, they are not used to calculate a college’s net price.
It’s important to understand a school’s net price, because it’s usually significantly smaller than the sticker price. This is especially true for private colleges and universities, as they often have generous endowments that allow the school to offer gift-based financial aid to the majority of its students.
Net price can be calculated with a net price calculator. Most schools have one available on their website that will show students what they can actually expect to pay for college. These calculators work by asking students questions about their financial situation and academic record to estimate the amount of gift-based financial aid they can expect should they be accepted into the school.
Each net price calculator is school-specific. Not all schools have the same amount of financial resources to help students pay for education. In addition, each school will have its own criteria for determining a student’s eligibility for gift-based financial aid and how much in grants and scholarships the student can expect to receive.
Also, remember, that net price calculators only provide an estimate. Changes in a school’s scholarship funding, tuition and student’s academic and financial situation can all affect what the actual net price ends up being.
Net price calculators are helpful in two ways. First, they can give students a much more accurate picture of the financial cost of a school. The student can then confirm if a school is unaffordable. At first blush, what appears to be an unaffordable school might actually be within reach after gift-based financial aid comes into play. The calculator can help a student determine that.
Second, calculators allow more accurate cost comparisons among schools. Simply comparing the sticker prices between schools doesn’t give an accurate picture of how much each school really costs. For example, if Schools A and B have the same sticker price of $45,000 per year, but School A offers $10,000 in gift-based aid while School B offers $15,000, School B is actually cheaper than School A. A student wouldn’t know this without using a net price calculator.
Because each net price calculator is school-specific, students can usually find one at the school’s website. However, there are several resources online that provide centralized lists of net price calculators.
Provides a searchable database of schools that utilize a version of the CollegeBoard’s net price calculator.
Prospective college students can search for a specific school’s net price calculator simply by entering in the school’s name.
Provides a listing of net price calculators of about 300 colleges and universities.
There’s more to the cost of college than tuition. Fees and related expenses can add significant amounts of money to the total cost of attendance. Here are some of the fees online students can expect to pay, although a few might be waived if the student makes a formal request.
Just applying to a school typically costs money. Most colleges require an application fee of about $50-$60, although fees can range from $30 to as high as $80. Some schools do not charge an application fee or allow students to apply for free if they can demonstrate financial need.
This cost covers books and other materials necessary for students to complete a particular course. Depending on the school and course, the price can range anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per semester.
The purpose of the technology fee is to help pay for a school’s information technology, such as local area networks and high-speed internet. Depending on the school, this fee may also include the cost of delivering courses to remote locations through online learning programs.
This fee is intended to cover the costs of student services on campus, such as recreational facilities. This fee is sometimes waived for online students.
Certain courses will have a special fee. For instance, a lab fee is a common form of a class fee and is used to cover the costs of equipment, supplies and materials used in a lab course.
Students wishing to pay their tuition online with a credit card will often have to pay a convenience fee of 2-3% of the total amount paid. This fee covers the transaction fee credit card companies charge the merchant (in this case, the school) when their credit cards are used.
A few schools will charge students when they drop a class after the semester has begun. This is usually less than $10.
Students wishing to order a copy of their college transcript can expect to pay up to $10 to their school’s registrar office.
This covers the expenses of the on-campus student health center. This fee is sometimes waived for online students.
A few schools will charge this fee to help fund programs that allow access to special advisors with the goal of helping students graduate and succeed in college.
Besides calculating the net price of a school, prospective online college students should consider the following to get a more accurate representation of the cost of college attendance.
For most colleges and universities on a semester system, students need about 12 to 15 credits per semester to be considerate full-time, with about 120 to 130 total credits needed to graduate. When calculating the cost of a semester or school year, make sure to the calculation includes the correct number of credits.
Cost of tuition can be given on a per credit, per semester or per year basis. Whatever unit pricing system is used, be sure to use the same system across all schools to create a consistent comparison. Remember, some schools may charge students on a per credit basis until they hit full-time status, when they pay a flat fee (which ends up being cheaper on a per credit basis).
Some schools have additional fees or associated costs for certain majors. For example, lab or special technology fees might apply to science or technology majors. And for majors that have in-person curriculum requirements, travel expenses should be calculated into the cost of attendance.
Public colleges and universities have various policies on how to treat out-of-state online students. Some charge them a special online tuition. Others charge them the in-state rate. And some schools charge them an out-of-state rate. Then there are schools with special reciprocity agreements with neighboring states where those students can receive a special discounted rate or the in-state rate.
An online education requires access to a computer and an internet connection. But high-speed internet, along with special software and hardware, is also needed to successfully attend online college. For instance, a microphone and/or a webcam could be necessary for synchronous learning requirements. Computers with certain modern operating systems may be needed to run or access software required for distance learning. If the student doesn’t already have the necessary hardware or software to enroll, they should factor in the cost of getting a new computer or speeding up their internet connection.
University Park, Pennsylvania (flagship campus)
Undergraduate, graduate and certificate
Yes, transfer credits accepted
$6,742 – $7,297 (undergraduate)
$10,235 – $13,200 (graduate and certificate)
$30,130 (in-state, undergraduate)
$44,612 (out-of-state, undergraduate)
$20,732 - $25,430 (in-state, graduate)
$35,586 - $40,874 (out-of-state, graduate)
Undergraduate, graduate, certificate and standalone courses
Yes, transfer credits accepted
$288 - $478 per credit (undergraduate)
$528 - $777 per credit (graduate)
$26,046 (in-state, undergraduate)
$44,706 (out-of-state, undergraduate)
$29,739 (in-state, graduate)
$39,336 (out-of-state, graduate)
Tempe, Arizona (flagships campus)
Undergraduate, graduate and certificate
Yes, transfer credits accepted
$28,491 per year (in-state, undergraduate)
$45,071 per year (out-of-state, undergraduate)
$31,213 per year (in-state, graduate)
$41,861 per year (out-of-state, graduate)
*please check school websites for most up-to-date tuition costs.
Besides finding the cheapest school or getting scholarships and grants, there are other ways to save on the cost of attending college online.
One of the best ways to save money on school is to lower the number of credits needed to complete a given program. There are a few ways to do this. First, the student can have college credits transfer from other schools or from work or life experience. The exact process will depend on the school’s transfer policy. Second, the student may get college credit for taking Advanced Placement courses in college and getting a minimum score on the AP exam.
Online colleges are popular with those who have other responsibilities, such as a full-time job. These non-traditional students will usually attend school part-time while they continue to work full-time. Some employers will pay for part or all of their employee’s education. This is an option for getting a much cheaper college education, although many employers that provide this benefit will require their employees to promise to continue working at their current employer for a certain period of time.
Many schools have tiered tuition, which means students are charged per credit until they become full-time students. Then, they’re charged a flat rate which reflects a discount on a per credit unit cost. For example, a school may charge students $250 per credit, but that same school might charge a full-time student (who take 12 or more credits a semester) only $2,500. In this example, students can save money by attending class full-time.
One of the biggest reasons to attend college online is the flexibility. Depending on the program, students will be able to take courses anytime, anywhere and complete the course requirements whenever they wish (within some time limitations). But if students are willing to load up on additional credits each semester and take courses year-round, it may be possible to graduate a semester or whole year early. This strategy only works if students pay a flat tuition fee once they exceed a certain number of credits per semester.
For students attending school at an on-campus location, there are other ways to lower the cost of a traditional college education. It’s important to keep in mind that some of these costs are non-existent for online students.
The cost of living on campus in a dorm can rival the cost of tuition and fees. One way to lower this cost is to find a much cheaper living location off campus, whether it’s living with parents, roommates or simply finding a very affordable place to live.
Choosing to commute to class can help save money. But understand that some of the costs of commuting, such as gas, insurance, public transportation costs, etc. may offset some of the cost savings of living off campus.
Receiving in-state tuition can lower the cost of tuition by a significant amount, often over 50 percent. Several schools that charge out-of-state tuition to campus students charge the same tuition costs to online students regardless of whether they are in-state or out-of-state.
Most textbooks can be purchased at a significant discount as used. And besides some creases on the cover or markings throughout the pages, they are no different than a brand-new text book. Along the same vein, students can resell their used textbooks for cash and recoup some of the costs spent on books each semester.
Even the more affordable state universities have tuitions for in-state residents that are significantly higher than a local community college. Students can save a tremendous amount of money by attending their local community college for one or two years before enrolling in the school where they intend to graduate from. Most community colleges are now offering online programs and degrees as well.
An online degree is particularly useful to those who already have a college degree. These students already have established careers that may make attending a traditional college impractical. Enter the online master’s degree.
Because a master’s degree requires entering students to already have a college degree (usually a bachelor’s), many incoming students already have careers and are working full-time. This makes the flexibility of an online master’s degree program very enticing.
Besides that, master’s degree programs are usually fairly short. A bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete and a doctorate can take up to seven. With the ability to self-pace coursework when enrolled online, even a part-time master’s degree can be completed within a few years, while extra motivated students can complete their master’s training in a single year.
Students must ensure the benefits will outweigh the costs. It’s normal for a master’s program (even an online one) to cost tens of thousands of dollars. At the very least, it will cost a few thousand.
Then there’s the time cost of several years of coursework. If an individual isn’t able to turn the financial and time cost into higher pay, a new career or other form of professional advancement, the master’s degree might not be a good idea. To help ensure better advancement opportunities, a student must choose a school that offers the right program to meet their goals, an expansive alumni network to foster connections and a low enough cost that the student can expect to break even in a reasonable amount of time.
Most programs will have per credit rates for part-time students and a flat rate for full-time students. This varied pricing reflects the fact that some students will attend full-time and graduate within one to two years while other students will attend part-time and may take four or more years to complete the program.
There are other potential costs, such as travel to campus for in-person curriculum requirements. Some schools will include some of these travel costs in the tuition rate while others will leave everything up to the student to figure out. Finally, master’s degree programs at state universities may also have a different tuition rate for in-state and out-of-state students.
*please check school website for most up-to-date tuition & fee costs.
Andrew Selepak, PhD, is a professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida and director of the online graduate program in social media.
Tuition is only one of the costs of education. Students also often have to purchase books and computer software as well. Design courses may require students to purchase Photoshop while video editing courses could require students to purchase Premiere Pro, and almost all programs will require students to use Microsoft Office. Luckily some schools have partnerships with companies like Adobe or Microsoft and offer the software at a student discount, but this is still an added cost that most students don’t consider when taking online classes.
There are also student fees. While student fees for online students might be reduced compared to in-residence students, even online students will still most likely pay a fee to use the library and fee to allow them to attend school sports events, even if the student never steps foot on campus. And there can be a fee to have a student ID made. And while these fees may seem unnecessary, they do allow the students to access the library online including digital copies of books, search engines like LexisNexis, and research studies from digital journals, and the student ID can get discounts at the museums around the world. So, while it is an added cost, it does provide value if the student uses it.
The best thing about online education is that students are not limited by time and space. It is possible to enroll in a program on the other side of the country or the other side of the world. This means you are not limited to just the schools in your town or state. It is important for students not to select a program just because it is at a higher ranked school but to look for the best program for them where they will learn the skills to best help them achieve their dream job. To do this, students need to research the classes offered, the instructors, and find out where graduates are earning jobs. Success in a career doesn’t come from the name of the school on your diploma but the skills learned in school that translate to a successful career. Most schools will highlight their graduates and professors on their website, and students can see what other students have learned there and the success they achieved in school and after they graduated.
Contains information to help students not just calculate how much it will cost to attend college, but understand why college costs are going up.
Provides extensive information about college from how to get in to how to pay for it.
The CFPB has a fantastic section focusing on the financial challenges and requirements to attend college.
The US Department of Education has created a searchable database where prospective college students can confirm if a postsecondary institution is accredited.
Part of the US Department of Education, this website is the primary source of information concerning federal financial aid for college.
The FAFSA is the single most important application college students will complete to be eligible for a variety of financial aid from state and federal sources, as well as aid offered by the schools themselves.
Famous for its rankings, US News and World Report also provides additional information about colleges in general, so they may be easily compared and researched.