The Most Affordable
Colleges in 2020

Updated on: 03/20/2020
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According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average U.S. undergraduate student paid more than $22,000 in tuition, fees, and other college expenses during the 2015-16 academic year. This represents a significant financial investment for most learners. Online students often spend less on their degree than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. A growing number of schools have begun to offer flat tuition rates for online students, regardless of their state residency status. Additionally, most spend less on housing and meals than brick-and-mortar students, whose room and board expenses can be fairly high. However, the cost of an online degree can still amount to thousands of dollars per year.

Because affordability is such a key factor for postsecondary education, prospective students are encouraged to compare costs at all potential colleges and universities before committing to a school. Below you'll find our list of the 50 most affordable accredited online colleges. Our guide also discusses different types of fees and expenses online students can expect to pay, along with some tips for applying for and receiving loans, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid.

10 Most Affordable Accredited Online Colleges in 2020

  1. University of South Florida - Tuition: $4,705
  2. Oklahoma State University - Tuition: $6,707
  3. University of Washington - Tuition: S9,765
  4. Peirce College - Tuition: $6,395
  5. University of Illinois at Springfield - Tuition: $10,733
  6. Indiana University - Tuition: $9,371
  7. University of Florida - Tuition: $11,313
  8. South Texas College - Tuition: $1,610
  9. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College - Tuition: $16,337
  10. California State University-Dominguez Hills - Tuition: $4,533

The 50 Most Affordable Online Colleges

Affordability is one of the most important factors for learners to consider during their college search. Many schools offer rigorous educational options for affordable prices. This list explores the most affordable online colleges in 2020. Along with tuition rates, this ranking factors in each school's number of available programs, financial aid options, and student services.

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Minimum Qualifications
  • Accredited public or private not-for-profit institution
  • At least 3 online associate degrees or certificate programs (2-year schools)
  • At least 3 online bachelor’s or master’s degrees (4-year schools)
  • Annual in-state tuition below $3,000 (2-year schools)
  • Annual in-state tuition below $12,000 (4-year schools)
Ranking Metrics

Colleges receive a total score based on performance in the following categories:

  • Average in-state net price for first-time/full-time undergraduates
  • Count and breadth of online programs available
  • Student-teacher ratio
  • 6-year graduation rate (4-year schools only)
  • % of beginning, full-time undergrads receiving scholarship/grant aid from the college
  • Average $ of financial aid students receive directly from the college
  • Availability of academic/career counseling services
  • Availability of job placement services for students and graduates
  • 3-year loan default rate
  • AC Online Peer-Based Value (PBV)*

*PBV: is a proprietary metric that compares the cost of a program to the cost of other programs with the same (or a similar) qualitative score. It also compares the qualitative score of the program to the score of other programs with the same (or similar) cost. In short, the PBV calculation denotes the overall value – or 'bang for your buck' – of an online degree.

Data Sources

Our college rankings are backed by data collected and analyzed from The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, a program managed by the National Center for Education Statistics. Surveying over 7,500 colleges annually, it is among the most longstanding and trusted providers of U.S. postsecondary information.

  • Most recent “Final Release” data available as of October 2017

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Cost and Quality: A Closer Look at the Price of Higher Education

Finding affordable online colleges requires careful research. Tuition prices only comprise part of the overall cost of earning a degree. Each school charges different tuition rates and fees, so learners should compare program costs to decide which option provides the best value.

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What to Expect from Tuition and Fees

Tuition rates vary by institution. Most schools charge a per-credit rate. However, some schools charge flat per-semester tuition rates, either for all students or for those taking a certain number of credits.

Along with tuition, online students need to pay for expenses such as computers and software. Learners may also need high-speed internet to access the online learning platform and stream lectures.

Like on-campus students, online learners must consider housing, food, and transportation costs. Many online students live with their family or choose more affordable housing in an area with a lower cost of living. Additionally, the cost of groceries is generally much lower than campus meal plans. Online students also tend to save money on transportation costs, since most distance programs require few if any campus visits.

Even learners pursuing the most affordable online college degrees must generally pay fees in addition to tuition costs. Schools may assess fees one time, annually, or once per term. The following section details common fees for students attending affordable online colleges.

Fees Online College Students Will Pay

  • Technology Fees

    Most institutions charge online learners a per-course or per-term technology fee. This fee generally covers costs associated with offering online technical support services, which are typically available at all hours. The fee also goes toward the cost of maintaining an online learning management system.

  • Graduation Fees

    Most schools charge a one-time graduation fee, typically ranging from $50 to $100. Additionally, students must generally rent a cap and gown to participate in the graduation ceremony, which can cost up to $50.

  • Assessment Fees

    Many schools test incoming students in certain academic areas, such as English and mathematics, in order to place learners at the suitable course level. Some schools charge a fee for these placement tests. Colleges may waive the testing requirement for recent high school graduates with above-average GPAs.

  • Travel Fees

    Although many cheap online colleges offer programs entirely remotely, some require campus visits or residencies. Programs that include in-person components, such as an internship or practicum, typically require learners to pay associated transportation and housing costs.

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Making Cheap Online Colleges Even More Affordable

Even students attending the cheapest online colleges typically rely on financial aid to defray the cost of attending school. Online learners can qualify for several forms of funding, including scholarships and grants, which do not require repayment. Learners can also take out student loans. Below are the most common types of funding for college students.

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  • Scholarships

    Unlike loans, which require students to repay what they borrow with interest and fees, scholarships do not require repayment. Recipients can typically apply scholarship funds toward tuition and other college expenses.

    Students can apply for state, college, and private scholarships. Applications are available on government and community foundation websites and through individual schools' financial aid offices. Most scholarships are awarded based on merit, need, or a combination of the two. Each scholarship program includes unique eligibility requirements, and applicants may need to submit a personal essay, transcripts, and letters of recommendation.

  • Grants

    Grants, like scholarships, do not require recipients to repay funds. The federal government provides funding through awards such as need-based Pell Grants and service-based TEACH Grants. Some grant programs require recipients to fulfill work or program commitments; those who do not fulfill obligations must typically repay awarded funds.

  • Assistantships

    Online graduate students can supplement their income through assistantships, or through paid academic positions at their university. Learners can pursue roles as teaching assistants, research assistants, and graduate assistants. In addition to financial compensation, students in assistantships may receive tuition credits, a spending allowance, and institutional health insurance coverage.

  • Fellowships

    Unlike assistantships, which carry teaching and research requirements, fellowships are merit-based awards that support full-time graduate studies. These awards involve no additional responsibilities. Learners can apply for internal and external fellowships. Fellows typically receive full tuition, a spending allowance, and institutional health insurance.

  • Reimbursement Programs

    Employers can offer students up to $5,250 per year in tuition assistance. The IRS section 127 tax code allows employers to deduct from their taxes any money they reimburse undergraduate or graduate students for tuition, books, or supplies. Educational reimbursement is often available to current, laid-off, and retired employees.

  • Loans

    The most commonly used loans come from the federal government. Undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need can receive subsidized loans that do not begin accruing interest until six months after graduation.

    Graduate students, and undergraduate students who are ineligible for subsidized loans, can apply for unsubsidized loans. These loans accrue interest while students are in school. For additional funds, graduate students, professional students, and parents of undergraduate students can apply for Direct PLUS Loans.

    Students should begin by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Colleges and the federal government use each student's FAFSA form to determine the types and amount of aid for which learners qualify. Students can learn about the various types of loans through the Department of Education's (ED) website.

The Importance of a High-Quality Education

When evaluating prospective schools, learners should consider several factors in addition to tuition rates. Students should research the school's degree offerings to ensure their desired major, minor, and specialization options are available. Learners should also verify that each prospective school holds proper accreditation, since only students at accredited institutions qualify for certain types of financial aid. Other important factors to consider include the format of online programs and student outcomes, such as graduation and retention rates.

  • Accreditation

    Two types of accreditation apply to U.S. institutions: regional and national. Regional accreditation is the most prestigious of the two and typically applies to degree-granting institutions. Vocational and technical colleges often receive national accreditation.

    Additionally, individual programs and departments can earn field-specific accreditation. Learners in some industries need a degree from an accredited program to qualify for licensure.

    The accreditation status of a student's school impacts their ability to qualify for federal aid and transfer credits to other institutions. Accredited schools typically display credentials prominently on their website. Additionally, the ED website and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintain databases of all accredited schools in the United States.

  • Graduation Rates

    Degree completion time depends on factors including program requirements, enrollment status, and previous education. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 40.6% of students who entered a four-year college from 1996 to 2010 graduated within four years. Of those entering a two-year school between 2000 and 2013, 30.3% graduated within two years. Students should research their prospective school's graduation rates to better understand their anticipated degree completion time.

  • Reputation

    Reviewing data can help students evaluate a school's reputation and find the most affordable online colleges that offer the highest academic quality. Organizations such as U.S. News & World Report rank colleges based on criteria such as affordability, learning communities, first-year experiences, and research. Students should consider their personal preferences and goals when determining which factors to prioritize.

    Additionally, the National Center for Education Statistics provides details about specific institutions. Learners can access data related to financial aid, enrollment, and tuition rates.

  • Employment Outlook

    High-quality schools prepare learners to excel in the workforce. Prospective students can access information on career outcomes for learners in specific majors and at certain institutions.

    Through the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), users can search for salary and employment projections by occupation. This data helps students understand their salary potential and the stability of their chosen industry. Learners can also use PayScale to browse career profiles, data and research, and career advice.

  • Student Loan Default Rate

    A school's cohort default rate (CDR) illustrates the success of its graduates and their ability to repay student debt. The CDR represents the average percentage of students who default on federal or state student loans within a three-year period.

    The national cohort default rate was 10.1% in 2016, a 6.5% decrease from 2015. Students can locate an individual school's CDR using the ED database.

  • Salary of Graduates

    Learners can use various tools to understand their projected salary potential. For example, students can review the 2019-2020 College Salary Report from PayPal, which uses data from 3.5 million respondents to determine the schools with the highest salary potential for graduates of bachelor's and associate programs.

    Students can find more information about salary expectations by reviewing the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics, which feature data on more than 800 occupations. The BLS also provides maps detailing salary and employment statistics by geographic location.

Additional Resources

The Best Online Colleges of 2020

Best Online Colleges with High ROI

Best Online Christian Colleges

Most Popular Rankings by Degree, State, and More

Cheapest Online Colleges: Past Years' Top Schools

Reviewing the cheapest online colleges of previous years can help prospective students identify trends among affordable online colleges. The list below includes the most affordable online colleges for the 2018-2019 academic year.

RANK COLLEGE Score Financial Aid Cost
1 University of Wyoming 97.84 92% $119 per credit hour
2 University of Illinois at Springfield 96.23 96% $286 per credit hour
3 Murray State University 95.91 99% $317 per credit hour
4 Lee University 95.54 94% $7,200 per semester
5 Pennsylvania State University-World Campus 95.42 94% $691 per credit hour
6 University of Minnesota-Crookston 95.33 92% $391 per credit hour
7 University of Massachusetts-Amherst 95.29 88% $6,341 per semester
8 The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga 95.11 96% $529 per credit hour
9 New Mexico Highlands University 95.01 95% $200 per credit hour
10 Northern Illinois University 94.76 96% $4,733 per semester
11 Mid-Atlantic Christian University 94.67 100% $400 per credit hour
12 Langston University 94.62 94% $200 per credit hour
13 Hodges University 94.49 99% $530 per credit hour
14 Middle Georgia State University 94.12 91% $109 per credit hour
15 Fayetteville State University 94.05 96% $6,992 per year
16 Grace Bible College 94.05 100% $295 per credit hour
17 Youngstown State University 93.98 96% $3,950 per semester
18 University of Massachusetts-Lowell 93.90 90% $340 per credit hour
19 Florida Atlantic University 93.84 87% $105 per credit hour
20 Southern Illinois University-Carbondale 93.82 88% $1,206 per credit hour
21 Central Michigan University 93.66 92% $395 per credit hour
22 University of South Carolina-Columbia 93.59 90% $400 per credit hour
23 University of South Florida-St Petersburg 93.52 98% $186 per credit hour
24 The University of Tennessee-Martin 93.36 96% $288 per credit hour
25 Baker College 93.32 100% $240 per credit hour
26 Albany State University 93.14 99% $162 per credit hour
27 Cabarrus College of Health Sciences 93.03 93% $375 per credit hour
28 National Louis University 92.96 86% $347 per credit hour
29 Plymouth State University 92.94 89% $10,700 per year
30 Touro University Worldwide 92.93 100% $400 per credit hour
31 Western New Mexico University 92.93 97% $189 per credit hour
32 Clayton State University 92.92 94% $220 per credit hour
33 Missouri Southern State University 92.80 93% $177 per credit hour
34 Eastern Illinois University 92.79 93% $285 per credit hour
35 Arkansas State University-Main Campus 92.75 95% $254 per credit hour
36 East Tennessee State University 92.72 94% $407 per credit hour
37 Valley City State University 92.70 99% $5,769 per year
38 New Mexico State University-Main Campus 92.69 97% $254 per credit hour
39 University of Central Florida 92.69 96% $105 per credit hour
40 University of North Carolina at Pembroke 92.68 92% $3,211 per year
41 University of Central Arkansas 92.68 95% $197 per credit hour
42 The University of Texas of the Permian Basin 92.63 92% $2,014 per semester
43 Shasta Bible College and Graduate School 92.63 100% $350 per credit hour
44 Virginia University of Lynchburg 92.63 100% $3,600 per semester
45 University of Florida 92.60 96% $105 per credit hour
46 University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth 92.59 90% $939 per course
47 Brigham Young University-Idaho 92.55 71% $156 per credit hour
48 University of South Florida-Main Campus 92.55 98% $211 per credit hour
49 Washington State University 92.55 79% $543 per credit hour
50 Washburn University 92.51 92% $335 per credit hour

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