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The Cost of an Online Education

Oct 20, 2010 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 3 Comments

There’s a perception that online colleges cost less than traditional schools. But is it true? The answer is that it depends. Online colleges can be less expensive than traditional schools—but there are nonprofit and for-profit online colleges, as well as public and private traditional schools. And the reality is that tuition for online schools is not consistently lower than tuition for traditional schools across the board. How much you’ll pay depends on the type of school and its prestige, as well as your personal financial aid package—whether you’re studying online or in a classroom.

If you want to get your Associate’s degree, a traditional community college may be more cost-effective than online school. This is by no means an exhaustive survey, but at DeVry University, an online for-profit college, you’ll pay $9,912.50 per year for an Associate’s degree in accounting. The University of Phoenix, another for-profit online school, charges $14,820 per year for an Associate’s in Hospitality, Travel, and Tourism. At UMass Online, a public nonprofit college with an online component, you’ll pay $9,450 per year for an Associate’s degree in IT. And Thomas Edison State College charges $5,250 per year for an Associate’s degree online.
By contrast, The College Board claims that average tuition for a traditional two-year college is  $2,544 per year.

Traditional public four-year colleges, according to the College Board, charge an average of $7,020 per year in tuition and fees for in-state students. If you come from out of state, you’ll pay an average of $11,528 per year.

Girl with Computer

The cost of your online college will vary depending on whether the school is public or private, for-profit or non-profit.

Compare that to the cost of some online degree programs administered by public colleges. Oregon State University offers Bachelors degrees online for $5,760 per year. A Bachelor’s at Thomas Edison State College costs $5,250 per year. The University of Delaware, however, charges $9,750 per year for its Bachelor’s degrees in nursing, and hotel, restaurant and institutional management.

The most serious debt, however, comes from private, nonprofit four-year colleges—which charge on average $26,273 per year. They often charge per year what it would cost to attend a public college for four years, total.

Many nonprofit private colleges offer online degrees as well as traditional instruction. An online Bachelor’s degree in nursing from Drexel, a fairly prestigious traditional college, costs $20,115 per year. But an online Bachelor’s from Utica College costs $6,691 per year.

Many colleges offer online degree programs, and some charge less for online degrees than traditional degrees. Others don’t. For instance, Penn State charges approximately $35,490 per year in tuition, fees, room and board and other expenses, for a traditional MBA. It charges approximately $25,656 per year for the same degree online, including all fees and extra costs.

It’s difficult to do a side-by-side comparison of online colleges and traditional schools, for several reasons. One reason is that your financial aid package may include more grants and scholarships at a school with a higher sticker price—bringing the price down lower than other options that initially seem less expensive. One thing to keep in mind is that traditional colleges often come with extra and costs that don’t apply to online schools. These include:

Room and board

Room and board—costs for a meal plan, a dorm room, and other expenses—can cost thousands on top of tuition prices. If you go to college online, you can take classes from home—and your living expenses won’t change. If you can take classes from home and live with your parents, even better.


On some campuses, you can walk to every classroom. At others, classrooms are more spread out—and you may have to take the subway, the bus or drive to some of your classes. If you take classes online, you won’t have to worry about transportation costs.

Child care

If you’re a parent in college and have young children, you may have to pay for childcare to attend classes in a traditional school. If you study online, you can attend class while the kids play in the other room.

The truth is that online college prices tend to vary as much as those at traditional schools. The cost of your online college will vary depending on whether the school is public or private, for-profit or non-profit. However, there are a few hidden costs to traditional schools that don’t occur online—that you wouldn’t have to worry about with an online education. Factor these into your overall picture of college costs, and you should be able to get a clearer picture of which option is cheapest for you.




Chris Over a year ago

Very informative - lovin the lower cost option for my daughters.

Nicole Vosburgh Over a year ago

Thank you for this informative article. My husband is considering doing online classes to get his Masters. We have a 1 year old son, so this seems to be the best for us right now.

Tiffany Hoyt Over a year ago

Thank you, I have been trying to find the most affordable option to get my MBA.

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