How Much Does Online College Cost, Really?

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Whether you live far from college, have kids to watch, or just don’t want to go to school in person, attend an online college is a great option.

If you’re wondering how much online college costs, this guide includes a cost breakdown, factors affecting costs, and ways to save on your online degree.

Online College Costs: A Breakdown

The cost of attending an online college varies depending on the individual school, whether your school is public or private, and whether you are from in-state or out-of-state.

Rate structures differ by college. They can charge per semester, credit hour, or program. Some specific courses may cost more depending on lab fees or additional materials needed.

According to Education Data Initiative, the cost of earning an online bachelor’s degree with a full course load averages $51,091. In-state students pay an average of $38,496. Students attending a school outside their home state spend an average of $54,183.

Prices vary widely from college to college. Costs for credit hours can range from under $200 to over $2,000. At public colleges, the average is $316. Private colleges are slightly more expensive, costing $488 per credit hour.

Besides tuition, students also have to pay for technology, course materials, textbooks, and other fees. Here is a breakdown of online college costs.


Many colleges charge international students higher tuition because their families have not paid state taxes. (Some colleges, however, do not charge out-of-state tuition for 100% online degrees.)

Technology costs

Some programs require learners to pay a technology fee that covers the cost of virtual classroom platforms and existing IT infrastructure. Technology costs help upgrade and maintain college technology. These costs can range from $5 to $50 per credit hour, depending on the program.

Costs of course materials and textbooks

Textbooks and course materials are not included in the tuition fee. Buying used books may not be possible if a textbook is only available as an e-book. According to Education Data Initiativetextbooks and materials cost students an average of $450 to $650 per semester.

Additional charges

Additional fees you may face when attending an online college include application, orientation, library, and graduation fees. Some schools may charge online students for parking lots or fitness centers that you may never use. Be vigilant when researching colleges to avoid these additional costs.

Public vs. private

As noted above, on average, private colleges charge more per credit hour than public colleges.

However, financial aid can help offset tuition fees. Public schools receive state funding unlike private schools, so private schools have more control over how they spend their budget. Private schools sometimes use donations to provide students with grants, scholarships, and scholarships.

In-State or Out-of-State Tuition

Taxpayer money helps fund public colleges, so some schools charge more for out-of-state students. On average, students in the state pay $38,496 for tuition. International students pay an average of $54,183.

Some private colleges do not charge out-of-state tuition, reducing the overall cost for these learners. Fully virtual schools generally offer the same price to all students, regardless of location.

Fees charged

Attending college in person can come with amenities such as fitness centers, use of a library, or career service centers. Some colleges may charge online students this fee, as they theoretically still have the ability to use it.

You may face other online school fees covering access to specific software or distance learning fees. (You may see these fees when registering for specific courses.)

8 ways to save on online college

Luckily, the cost of earning your degree online doesn’t have to be as high as the original sticker price.

Start by researching online colleges that accept the FAFSA to avoid any surprises when you register.

1. Scholarships

Scholarships can be merit-based, awarded based on financial need, or targeted to specific identities.

There are generals STEM scholarships and scholarships for disabled students, minorities in STEMand women in STEM. Each scholarship has unique requirements, so do your research before submitting your application.

SEE: Best Computer Science Scholarships

2. Grants

Grants are generally needs-based and do not require repayment.

Complete the FAFSA to see if you qualify for the Federal Pell Grant, Academic Competitiveness Grant, or other money-saving grants.

3. Alternating programs

Work-study programs allow students to work on or off campus to pay for their tuition. If you are completing your degree remotely, check to see if your college is affiliated with a non-profit organization in your area where you can do work-study.

If you are interested in work-study, be sure to apply early as these programs have limited funding.

4. Employer sponsored programs

Some employers offer to pay part of the training costs of their employees if the courses benefit the company. These programs are called employer-sponsored or tuition reimbursement and are a major benefit to employees.

Completing your degree part-time and online allows you to continue working during regular business hours while studying.

5. Student loans

Unlike grants and scholarships, student loans must be repaid to the lender.

Federal student loans have fixed and lower interest rates than private student loans. Exhaust your federal loan options before taking out private loans and beware of predatory lending.

6. Transfers

To lower your overall college costs, you may want to attend a community college for the first two years of your degree. Then, transfer to the school you wish to document on your degree.

Some colleges accept up to 90 hours of transfer credit, which could mean significant savings.

7. Earn credits for your work experience

Some colleges offer course credit for military, volunteer, or professional experience. The American Council on Education evaluates acquired knowledge and recommends the number of credits to be awarded.

Depending on the school, you may be required to submit a portfolio of completed work or take an exam to assess your skills.

SEE: How to Get College Credit for Work Experience

8. Savings on course materials, technology and textbooks

The cost of textbooks, course materials, and a laptop all add up. To cut down on your expenses, try looking for PDF versions of your textbooks online or check out online schools that provide a computer.

Costs of Online College and In-Person College: A Comparison

Attending an online school may be the cheapest option. It depends on whether you live in the same state as your school of choice and which program interests you.

Decide based on your budget, lifestyle, and personal preferences.

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