The cost of college can be sobering. According to the College Board, students at in-state, 4-year public universities paid an average of $9,410 over the 2015-16 academic year while out-of-state students doled out nearly $24,000. Private college tuition was still higher. However, many colleges are heeding the call for affordable higher education, in particular those with online offerings. This guide highlights schools that are managing to make college affordable again through online programs. It features an in-depth search function and tips to ensure students get the most bang for their college buck. It also explores why online education is more popular and respected than ever. Read on to learn about the most affordable online colleges and universities.

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Students who want to research online colleges more thoroughly can do so with this handy search tool, which allows them to compare cheap online colleges on key criteria like acceptance rate, type of school, online programs, tuition and more.

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Why Affordably-Priced Online Colleges Matter

Every year, college costs rise while students struggle to manage them. The impact: higher student loan debt, stronger competition for scholarships and grants, and students struggling to make ends meet or, in some cases, forgoing college altogether.

The good news is that some colleges are bucking the trend of high costs by offering many incentives that make college affordable. These online colleges offer a top-notch education while cutting out many of the expenses that face students at traditional colleges, such as room and board, transportation and the like.

Just how ugly is the financial picture for aspiring students? Below are just a few statistics that show why affordable online colleges are becoming so popular, and important, in today’s costly higher education landscape.

  • Between the academic years of 2010-11 and 2015-16, the cost of room and board has risen over 16% at public four-year colleges and nearly 14% at private, non-profit four-year colleges.

  • College tuition and fees rose by a whopping 1,120% between 1978 and 2014. To put that in perspective, health care and foods costs rose by 601% and 244%, respectively, during the same period.

  • The 2014 average student loan debt was $28,950, indicating college costs grew more than twice as fast as inflation over the previous decade.

  • The average price of a new textbook was $79 in 2013, up nearly 28% from 2007. Used book prices jumped from $49 to $59 during this six-year period.

Breaking Stereotypes About Affordable Online Colleges

There was a time when online education was seen as the ‘lesser than’ option among educational institutions. Today, all those old stereotypes about cheap online colleges have been shattered, and many happy students have their hard-won degrees to prove it. Here are five of the most common stereotypes and the reality behind each:

Affordable online colleges aren’t properly accredited and lack quality degree programs.
Many of the cheapest online schools in the country rank among the best performing in measures of faculty quality, technological capability and student satisfaction. Note that these schools are held to the same rigorous accreditation standards as brick-and-mortar schools. Visit the U.S Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs online to verify program accreditation.
They don’t provide extensive support services to their students.
Affordable online schools can offer student services, on par with those provided on campus. Students can access library materials; academic support; career services, mentors and advisors; and almost anything else one could imagine online, by phone or through email.
Employers won’t respect a degree from an affordable online college.
Many employers recognized the value of online colleges the moment they discovered top employees could advance their educations while maintaining normal work hours. Today, not only are online programs quite common, the degrees they award are rarely tagged with an online label. Many traditional colleges now have online-only programs that carry the same weight as traditional programs – online degrees from the University of Florida, for instance, are exactly the same as those earned on campus.
Online classes are easy.
Online courses are most certainly not an ‘easy way out.’ In fact, the opposite is true. Online courses require students to be highly motivated and disciplined self-starters. Their coursework is just as rigorous as that delivered in the classroom; it demands the same effort and long hours.
Online education means learning in a vacuum.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Online students might not be in regular face-to-face contact with classmates and professors, but they can access video chats, message boards, lively discussions and plenty of teacher support online. It’s even possible to form strong friendships with fellow students through the time spent in an online class.

Key Factors of Online College Affordability

Affordability is one of online education’s biggest benefits. Online universities can offer a fantastic educational experience while sparing students thousands of dollars in debt. Nonetheless, there are many points to keep in mind when choosing among these schools. Here are the factors that contribute to a program’s overall affordability.

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Financial Aid and Scholarships

Financial aid can make degrees considerably more affordable. Accreditation matters a great deal, however: only accredited schools are eligible for the best financial aid options. Learn more about financial aid and scholarship opportunities for online students.

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School Type

Private schools are usually much more expensive than public colleges or universities, and that expense extends to online learning. Two-year colleges, meanwhile, usually cost much less than four-year colleges What’s more, community college credits can transfer to bachelor’s programs. making one’s entire education cheaper in the long run. While students attending in-state colleges usually pay lower tuition rates than out-of-state students, some universities extend that benefit to online students regardless of residency.

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Program Length / Time to Graduation

The longer the program, the more expensive it will be. That’s a good rule of thumb to remember when considering an online program that lets students move at their own pace. By taking several classes at once, the overall cost might actually be cheaper than it would otherwise.

Beyond the Sticker Price: The Real Cost of Online College

Online college sounds great, but what does it really cost? Just as with traditional brick-and-mortar schools, there might be ‘hidden’ fees, questions regarding the net cost of a degree, and uncertainty about how to make it all work on a tight budget. Here’s what students need to know about the real cost of even the cheapest online colleges and universities, so they can make a fully informed decision before admission.

Why Net Price Trumps Tuition Rate

At first blush, colleges’ posted tuition rates can make anyone feel a little uneasy. Even the most affordable online colleges might seem out of financial reach. However, it’s important to remember financial aid whatsoever – no grants, scholarships, or even loans. This aid can reduce qualifying students’ costs dramatically.

Students should look at the net price of their education rather than published rates. The net price is tuition, room and board, and other fees minus all the things that reduce them: Pell grants, other federal or state grants, scholarships; adjustments for various reasons, such as military discounts and any other financial aid awarded for merit or need. That final net price of affordable online schools can look much more attractive.

Overlooked and Hidden Costs of Online Colleges

Even after considering the net price of a college, there might be some surprises lurking in the education-cost wings. This is true of any school, online or otherwise. Here are some important things to watch out for when figuring out the bottom line of what an online college will cost.

On-campus Requirements and Related Travel Costs

Does the school have any campus requirements? Some programs require that long weekend classes, orientation, final examinations, or hands-on training be completed on campus. Students attending a schools based an hour away might not see this as a problem, but a Florida resident attending an online school in Washington State might face significant travel and lodging costs.

Technology Fees

Online learning requires a broadband internet connection and up-to-date computer hardware and software. Those who travel often might need to pay for Wi-Fi in hotels and restaurants to access their coursework. Some schools also tack on ‘technology fees’ to cover the costs of running servers, uploading content and more.

Upgrading a Personal Computer

Technology changes so rapidly that a computer purchased only a few years ago might now be woefully out-of-date. Students should ensure that their computer has the capacity to handle the software for online courses. If not, necessary could mean hundreds of dollars of unexpected expense.

Tiered Tuition

Though the freedom to take one class at a time is a big selling point for online colleges, full-time students usually pay less than part-time students in the long run. Online students who choose to take fewer credits during a semester or cycle might wind up paying more for the same education.

Graduation Fees

Some online colleges require certain fees for graduation, including a review of the final transcript, technology fees for the virtual graduation ceremony, or fees that simply cover certificate, diploma or degree shipping costs. These fees might not be listed upfront, so be sure to ask.

Front-loaded Financial Aid Packages

Students should always look very carefully at their financial aid packages. Some of them will offer the bulk of the funds upfront, which means the first year might be quite cheap or even free – but the continuing years might wind up costing much more. Online students should ask to see a financial aid package broken down by year so that they can make a more informed decision.

Money-Saving Tips for Online College Students

Little things add up, and that’s certainly true when attending college. Even those who cut their costs by attending cheap online schools might still spend more money than they have to. Here are some great ideas for staying frugal in college – keeping a lot more money in your pocket, where it belongs.

Learn how to budget
1

Figuring out finances is an absolute must – it is vital to know where you are in order to figure out where you are going. Budgeting from month to month and sticking to it can help students save money, put something away for emergencies and not have to deal with the surprise of not having enough cash to go around.

Accept only subsidized loans
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Sometimes a loan is the only way to make college work. If that’s the case, look for student loans that are subsidized, which means the interest does not start accruing until the student is out of school for a certain period of time, usually six months. This saves a great deal of money in the long run.

Take advantage of your student ID
3

Even those who take online classes will often receive a student ID. This handy little card can save big bucks at local bookstores, recreational areas, restaurants and more. Always present it and ask if there is a discount for students.

Use free or discounted software
4

While technical courses often require specific, paid software, students in general education classes can save some cash by downloading free or less expensive alternatives. For example, Mac owners can use PixelMator instead of Photoshop for image editing work, while Microsoft Word users can switch to Google Docs.

Make good use of a power strip
5

Computers use a lot of juice, so make sure they aren’t pulling unneeded energy when not in use. Connect everything to a power strip, and turn the strip off when the day is done. The savings on the power bill will be worth the cost of the strip.

Bonus tip
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Some online schools offer free or deeply discounted laptops for students. If affording a new computer might be tough, looking into schools that offer help with this very important point might be worthwhile.

Other Helpful Resources for Keeping Online College Affordable

For most students, prohibitive college costs are the new reality. Fortunately, there are several online resources designed to make the journey easier, at least financially. The following are among some of the most helpful.

College Tips

An informative website full of intriguing tips on everything from dating to money. Students are likely to find a wealth of ideas here.

The Easy Guide to Budgeting

This informative guide from Money Geek helps novices and pros create and navigate a budget that actually works.

Federal Student Aid

This government website is the place to begin when searching for financial aid, scholarships, grants and more.

FinAid.org

This site is a clearinghouse of all things financial aid, from scholarships to loans to military aid.

Financial Aid Guide for Online College Students

LHTB’s online financial aid guide covers online learners’ aid options and considerations and demystifies the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

SnagAJob

Looking to make a little extra money? This site offers job searches and connections with local employers seeking full-time, part-time or contract work.

Surviving Financially as a College Student

This report from the American Indian College Fund offers tips to help students stay afloat financially.

USDA Food and Nutrition Service

Many students struggle to make ends meet, and that means they might also struggle with food. These government services might be helpful to those who simply can’t afford the necessities.