The Most Affordable
Colleges in 2020

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Most Affordable

An online degree helps students advance their education and increase their earning potential through a flexible learning format. At online colleges, undergraduates pursue majors like business, nursing, and the liberal arts without attending courses on campus. Thanks to the accessibility and convenience of online programs, students can choose the most affordable online college degrees without sacrificing quality.

While the cost of an online degree varies by program, many online colleges offer affordable tuition rates. In addition, online students save on housing costs while eliminating commuting and parking costs of attending in-person courses. The flexible schedule of an online degree also appeals to working professionals balancing personal and professional responsibilities.

This ranking lists the most affordable online colleges to help prospective students find a school that fits their budget and their schedule. This page also provides information about common online degrees, the price of higher education, and scholarship opportunities for online students.

Top 10 Most Affordable Online Colleges in 2020

Rank School Location
1 Southwestern Community College Sylvia, NC
2 Richmond Community College Hamlet, NC
3 Niagara County Community College Sanborn, NY
4 Copiah-Lincoln Community College Wesson, MS
5 Laramie County Community College Cheyenne, WY
6 Lenoir Community College Kinston, NC
7 Stanly Community College Albemarle, NC
8 Mid-Plains Community College North Platte, NE
9 Madisonville Community College Madisonville, KY
10 Roane State Community College Harriman, TN

Affordable Online Colleges Overview

Students looking for the most affordable online college degrees can earn a degree in business, liberal arts, nursing, or another in-demand field through a fully online format. An online college degree provides the possibility of lower tuition fees, the ability to attend classes from home, and a flexible schedule.

During an online college degree, students access coursework through a learning management system such as Canvas or Blackboard. Depending on the program, learners may watch recorded or streamed lectures, engage with other students on discussion boards, or complete group projects virtually. Schools may offer coursework synchronously or asynchronously, with many designing their curricula around the needs of working students.

Many online colleges offer transfer-ready degrees for students planning to earn a bachelor's degree. In these programs, online learners complete courses that meet general education requirements for many bachelor's programs. This route helps students pursuing a bachelor's degree save on tuition costs, since two-year colleges charge much lower rates than four-year institutions.

Some online programs also incorporate internship or practicum requirements, which students can complete in their local area. For example, an online nursing program combines coursework in a distance-learning format with onsite clinical hours at an approved location near the student. More technical programs may also include practicum or apprenticeship requirements to build career-ready skills.

Affordable online colleges support students by offering online resources. Many schools help students complete the admissions process with admission advisors. Admitted students can work with an academic advisor to select courses. Writing centers and online tutoring help students master core skills. Students may also use career centers to transition into the workforce.

Why Get an Online Degree?

Choosing an online degree provides many professional and personal benefits, including the following.

  • Affordability: Many students find online programs more affordable than on-campus programs. The cheapest online colleges save students money on tuition, housing, transportation, and other expenses.

  • Convenience: By selecting an online program, students can balance school with professional or personal responsibilities.

  • Flexibility: An online format prioritizes flexibility, allowing students to pursue a college degree around their schedules. Programs that deliver coursework asynchronously let students complete coursework at any time.

  • Online Resources: Online colleges support students through resources like academic advising, online tutoring, writing centers, and career services.

  • Accessibility: By choosing an online format, students can attend the cheapest online college, even if it is not in their local area.

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

The price of higher education continues to rise. Students benefit from many cost-saving options, including schools that offer affordable tuition and online programs. Choosing an online program means students do not pay room-and-board fees or commuting costs.

What to Expect from Tuition and Fees

The cost of an online college degree varies depending on the school and degree level. According to the College Board, a public two-year college charged $3,730 in tuition and fees for 2019-2020, while public four-year schools charged $10,440 for in-state students and $26,820 for out-of-state students. Private four-year schools charged the highest tuition rates, at $36,880 per year.

Tuition and fees at online colleges follow a similar pattern. At public colleges, an online bachelor's degree cost $316 per credit in 2019-2020, while private online bachelor's programs charged $488 per credit, according to data from U.S. News and World Report.

In addition to tuition, online learners must also factor in distance-learning fees, technology costs, and graduation fees. However, online students save on housing and transportation costs.

Common Online College Degrees


A degree in business administration, management, or organizational leadership prepares graduates for careers in business or for a bachelor's program. During the degree, learners gain foundational knowledge in areas like marketing, finance, accounting, and management.


Nursing is one of the most popular online college degrees. During a nursing degree, learners study human anatomy, evidence-based care, and patient health outcomes. Online nursing students complete coursework in an online learning environment while meeting the program's clinical requirements at a local site.

Liberal Arts

Students who choose a liberal arts major study the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Within the liberal arts, colleges may offer concentrations like English, history, political science, and sociology. Many students choose a liberal arts major to fulfill general education requirements for a bachelor's program.

General Studies

A general studies major lets students design an interdisciplinary course of study that can include arts and science courses. Many schools work with students to design a custom curriculum based on their interests and prior experience.

Criminal Justice

A criminal justice degree introduces students to criminology, corrections, forensics, and the legal system. Courses in criminal justice methods, victimology, law enforcement, and homeland security prepare graduates for careers in the criminal justice system. Graduates can also transfer into a bachelor's program.

Accreditation for an Online College

Prospective students researching cheap online colleges should always check a school's accreditation status before applying. Accredited schools must meet high standards for academic excellence, which benefits students in several ways. An accredited degree meets the requirements for more professional licenses and certifications, and credits earned at an accredited school are more likely to transfer.

Colleges and universities earn accreditation by undergoing a rigorous review process. Independent accrediting agencies measure the school's student learning outcomes, faculty qualifications, and graduation requirements to determine whether the school should hold accreditation.

At the institutional level, regional accrediting agencies focus on liberal arts and research institutions, while national accrediting agencies review vocational, technical, and religious schools.

In addition to institutional accreditation, students in certain fields should also look for programmatic accreditation. In nursing, for example, students must attend an accredited program to earn their registered nursing license. The Department of Education provides a database of accredited schools and programs.

Scholarships for Online Degrees

In addition to researching affordable online colleges, prospective students can also apply for scholarships to lower the cost of a degree. Many private foundations and professional organizations support online students through scholarship opportunities. Students may also qualify for program-specific scholarships.

Education Matters Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This scholarship supports students attending accredited colleges, including community colleges. Applicants must submit an essay explaining why education matters.
Amount: $5,000

Apply for Scholarship $1,000 Online College Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Full-time and part-time students qualify for this scholarship if they attend an accredited online college, including community colleges. Applicants must demonstrate a minimum 3.0 GPA and current enrollment in an online program.
Amount: $1,000

Apply for Scholarship
Get Educated Online College Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Requirements include attendance at an accredited school. Applicants must submit transcripts, an essay, and a copy of their FAFSA to demonstrate financial need.
Amount: $1,000

Apply for Scholarship
American Association of Colleges of Nursing Scholarships

Who Can Apply: The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) supports nursing students through multiple scholarship opportunities. In addition to AACN scholarships, this website links to external scholarships for nursing students.
Amount: $2,500-$5,000

Apply for Scholarship
Horatio Alger Scholarships

Who Can Apply: The Horatio Alger Association offers state scholarships, career and technical scholarships, national scholarships, and targeted scholarships for undergraduate students. Eligibility requirements vary depending on the scholarship.
Amount: $2,500-$25,000

Apply for Scholarship


Questions Answers
Is it cheaper to do college online? Cheap online colleges can save students thousands on their degree. The most affordable online colleges save students on tuition, transportation, and housing costs.
What kind of degree can I get online? Students can earn online degrees in business, education, nursing, and other in-demand fields. Online learners can also transfer into a bachelor's program to continue their education.
How much is the average cost of online college? While the cost of online college varies depending on the school, the cheapest online college tuition costs under $100 per credit.
Is there a free online college? Many of the cheapest online colleges offer low tuition costs and discounts for online learners. In addition, scholarships and grants can cover the cost of an online degree.

The 25 Most Affordable Online Colleges for 2020

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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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