The Most Affordable
Online College

Updated on: 01/20/2020
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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.

The 50 Most Affordable Online Colleges

When looking for the right place to pursue their higher education goals, students often examine a variety of factors. One of the most important tends to be affordability. Those colleges that create a rigorous educational experience for a reasonable, affordable price are obviously quite attractive to fiscally-minded students. This ranking takes into account which schools provide the most programs, financial aid options with lower rates and services necessary for online students while also keeping tuition and fees at a reasonable level.

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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

The cost of college does not necessarily indicate the quality of a school's degrees and other academic offerings, and students are urged to evaluate several factors when comparing online colleges. However, tuition rates, fees, and associated expenses are a chief concern for many students. Degree seekers should thoroughly research each school they are considering in order to determine which options are most affordable. Tuition is usually the most substantial expense, but students also need to cover other educational costs. Below you'll find a detailed breakdown of different fees and expected costs for online students.

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What to Expect from Tuition & Fees

The cost of tuition varies by selected institution. However, the average online or hybrid undergraduate student pays between $300 and $400 per credit, while the average online or hybrid graduate student pays $500 to $600 per credit. Most schools apply this rate to the student's total credit load each semester or quarter. However, some schools charge flat tuition rates either for certain credit ranges or for the entire term, regardless of credit load.

Beyond tuition, online students face other various expenses. These include computers, software, and other technology purchases that enable students to use the school's learning management system. Those living in a private residence may also need to obtain high-speed internet, which many of the most affordable online college degrees require for online coursework.

Like brick-and-mortar students, online learners must also consider housing, food, and transportation costs. Most online students forgo on-campus housing in favor of staying at home with their parents or leasing an apartment or house. Rental rates for the latter are typically lower than on-campus room-and-board costs, though this depends on the student's city and state of residence. Without on-campus meal plans, online students must also pay for their own meals – but again, off-campus food is often much cheaper than on-campus dining options. Online students tend to save money in transportation costs since they rarely need to commute to their school's campus. However, transportation may be a cost factor depending on where they live and if they are planning to work while in school.

Lastly, online students must pay certain fees in addition to their standard tuition costs. These fees may be assessed one time, annually, or once per term, depending on the school. A breakdown of the most common online student fees is found below:

Types of Fees Online College Students Will Pay

  • Technology Fees

    Most institutions charge technology fees for online students. These fees may be assessed per course or per term. Technology fees cover technical support for online students – usually offered 24 hours a day – along with needed improvements for the school's learning management system. Technology fees are often based on the student's credit load, with those taking fewer credits paying less than those taking more credits.

  • Graduation Fees

    Most schools charge students a one-time graduation fee as they near the end of their program. Fees vary by school, but most range from $50 to $100. Additionally, students normally need to rent a cap and gown to walk in their school's graduation ceremony, which can cost up to $50.

  • Assessment Fees

    Some online colleges and universities test incoming students in certain academic areas, such as English and mathematics, in order to evaluate a suitable course-placement level. Recent high school graduates with above-average GPAs may qualify for assessment waivers. However, many schools offer assessment tests free of charge.

  • Travel Fees

    Although they won't need to visit their school's campus every day, students may need to account for transportation expenses if their program requires an internship, practicum course, or other component that includes onsite visits.

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Making Cheap Online Colleges Even More Affordable

Many online students – even those attending cheap online colleges – rely on financial aid to pay for various expenses. Student loans are a popular option because they can cover the bulk of annual tuition and other college costs. For many students, however, loans do not cover all of the required costs. Student loans, along with the most common types of financial aid used to supplement loans, are detailed below.

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  • Scholarships

    Scholarships are a popular option because they are widely available and do not need to be repaid. Private companies, nonprofits, community foundations, and colleges and universities all offer scholarships, many of which are reserved for students in certain demographics. Some scholarships are renewable, meaning recipients can collect money each year they attend school, but most are one-time, lump-sum awards. To qualify for a scholarship, students usually need to complete an application and submit it to the scholarship provider by the listed deadline. Most scholarships are merit-based. Applications often require letters of recommendation, official transcripts, and at least one personal essay.

  • Grants

    Like scholarships, grants never need to be repaid and come from a variety of sources. However, most grants are need-based. This means recipients are eligible based on their level of financial need. Popular federal grants include the Federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Grant, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant.

  • Assistantships

    Online graduate students can supplement their income with assistantships, or paid academic positions at their university. These include teaching assistant, research assistant, graduate assistant, and graduate assistant roles. In addition to financial compensation, students in assistantships may also receive tuition credits, a spending allowance, and institutional health insurance coverage.

  • Fellowships

    Unlike assistantships, which carry teaching and research requirements, fellowships are merit-based financial awards that support full-time graduate study with no additional responsibilities. Fellowships may be internally or externally awarded. Fellows typically receive full tuition, a spending allowance, and institutional health insurance.

  • Reimbursement Programs

    Many organizations offer tuition reimbursement programs to employees seeking a college degree. As part of this arrangement, the employer covers some or all of their employee's college costs. In exchange, the employee must often commit to working for the organization for a certain amount of time after receiving their degree. The amount of tuition varies by employer, but most offer up to $5,250 per year, which is the federal maximum for tax-free reimbursement under section 27 of the U.S. tax code.

  • Loans

    Students may receive loans from either the federal government or a private lending institution, such as a bank or credit agency. Federal loans are considered the best option for most students because they carry fixed interest rates and do not require repayment until the recipient graduates or leaves school. Federal loan options include Direct Subsidized Loans for undergraduates with financial need, Direct Unsubsidized Loans for undergraduate and graduate students with no financial need, and Direct PLUS Loans for graduate students or parents of undergraduates. To qualify for federal loans, candidates must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance, or FAFSA. Comparatively, private loans can be riskier for students because they carry variable interest rates and may require repayment before the recipient is finished with school.

The Importance of a High-Quality Education

When evaluating a school's educational qualities, the cost of tuition is only one variable to consider. Prospective online learners should also research degree offerings to ensure their major, minor, and specialization options are available. Accreditation status is also key since it can affect the student's eligibility for certain types of financial aid or their ability to transfer credits. Other important factors include the format of online programs and student outcomes such as graduation and retention rates.

  • Accreditation

    Two types of accreditation are awarded to colleges. Institutional accreditation applies to the school as a whole while programmatic accreditation applies to medical schools, law schools, and other smaller departments at larger universities. Students must attend fully accredited schools in order to qualify for federal loans. Accreditation status should be prominently displayed somewhere on the school's home page. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation each maintain full lists of all accredited schools in the U.S. These lists allow students to browse all options and find cheap accredited online colleges.

  • Graduation Rates

    Graduation rates indicate the percentage of first-time undergraduate students at a particular school that successfully complete their program. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average four-year graduation rate among undergraduates at four-year institutions is roughly 40%. Graduation rates tend to be highest at private nonprofit schools, followed by public universities and for-profit institutions. For those attending two-year institutions, the average four-year graduation rate is roughly 30%.

  • Reputation

    To accurately evaluate a university's reputation, students should look beyond the school's official homepage. Many renowned publications, such as U.S. News & World Report, publish objective, data-driven annual rankings of schools based on undergraduate and graduate degree majors, online programs, and other criteria. Prospective students can also use the Integrated Postsecondary Education System to view school data and compare institutions based on graduation rates and other key student outcomes.

  • Employment Outlook

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics is a helpful resource for students researching job growth and other aspects of their prospective career field. The BLS website features hundreds of career profiles that also include duties and responsibilities, educational requirements, and occupational data specific to different states and metropolitan areas. For additional information, PayScale is a useful site that estimates salaries at different career levels based on input from professionals in that particular field.

  • Student Loan Default Rate

    Student default rate refers to the percentage of a school's graduates who are required to default on their required loan payments. Many students use this metric to determine their likelihood of gainful employment after receiving a degree. According to the Department of Education, the national student loan default rate was 6.1%. This figure represented a significant decline from the previous year. The department's Default Management page includes loan default data for colleges and universities across the country.

  • Salary of Graduates

    In addition to providing employment outlook information, PayScale publishes the annual College Salary Report. This report includes median entry-level and mid-career salaries for employees based on their undergraduate major. Additionally, PayScale ranks the best schools for nine general major fields, including business, education, and the humanities. Students can also learn about salary expectations through the BLS, which publishes median annual earnings for all occupations and state-based salary data for different careers.

Cheapest Online Colleges: Past Years’ Top Schools

Curious about how the cheapest online colleges ranked in past years? To see the trends among various colleges, check out these archived rankings from previous years. This can help students make a more informed decision about how much a school’s costs might go up in the future.

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