Guide to the Cost of Online College vs. On-Campus College

Guide to the Cost of Online College vs. On-Campus College

If you’re seeking an affordable college experience, online college can be a great way to save money. You may be able to save money on an array of peripheral expenses including housing and transportation, but you will likely also pay just as much in tuition and fees as the average student attending traditional classes. As always, costs can vary widely from one school to the next. There may be opportunities for a high quality education at a discount rate online but there are also many online options that charge higher-than-average rates per credit, especially in the for-profit online sector.

What is the cost of going to college online versus the cost of going to college in person? And how can you be sure you are getting the best your value from your educational experience regardless of how you attend college?

If you have already done the math, and you are sure that online college is right for you, check out our look at the best online colleges for 2022.

Otherwise, read on for a closer look at the costs you will need to compare if you are choosing between an online or in-person degree program...

IvyWise, college admissions consulting experts
IvyWise, college admissions consulting experts

How does tuition affect the cost of college?

Tuition is the largest single expense determining the cost of your college education, with the average four-year degree starting in the range of $38,000. Tuition will be the biggest expense regardless of whether you attend college online or in person. The average cost for four years of college tuition is generally the same regardless of whether you go to college in person or online. In fact, some colleges charge slightly more per credit hour for online instruction.

If you are pursuing a four-year college degree from a regionally accredited university, you should be aware that tuition for the average degree will start in the range of $38,000.”

There is at least one key distinction, however. The ceiling goes much higher for a four-year degree earned as a traditional on-campus student. Whereas four-year tuition for the costliest online schools tops out at close to $70,000, a degree at one of the nation’s Ivy League institutions can be more than twice that number. However, this differential is largely owed to the fact that some of the nation’s most elite schools simply do not offer traditional four-year degrees through fully online programs. This may yet change, but at present, it does constitute one major difference in cost between online and in-person education.

For a look at the best schools charging less than $20,000 per year, check out the The Most Affordable Colleges & Universities in the U.S. for 2022.

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How does housing costs affect the cost of college?

The cost of housing is a major factor in the cost of a traditional college experience but is not usually a factor for online students. For traditional students, whether you choose dormitory housing, an off-campus apartment, or membership in a sorority or fraternity with residential housing, your housing will constitute a major expense. Campus housing costs vary widely for most traditional students depending on how modern, spacious, and technologically-equipped your on-campus accommodations are.

Student Loan Hero reports that the difference in average cost for room and board between private and public colleges is actually fairly negligible, with a year in a public school dorm running about $11,500 per year, and the cost of a private school dormitory averaging about $12,990 per year. In general, four years spent living in a dorm should run you about $45,000.

In other words, dorm life can be costly, though this expense will often include features such as internet access, security, and a meal plan. Before you consider an off-campus apartment, you will want to factor in these costs.

Of course, if you are planning to attend college online, this is one area where you may be able to save a fortune, at least if you have the option of living at home with your parent(s) or guardian(s). For adult learners paying rent or mortgage, housing is already one of your major living expenses. You have, no doubt already factored this expense into your existing budget.

By contrast, if you are a recent high school graduate with the opportunity to continue living at home while attending online classes, you will be able to save plenty of money as a direct benefit of remote learning.

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How do college fees impact the price of college?

Campus fees impact the price of college by adding between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars to the final cost. Most students will pay some amount in college fees. These fees pay for a wide range of functions and services, including campus facilities like the student center, gym, and computer lab; student services like intramural sports, live entertainment, and printing costs; infrastructure like parking lots, athletic fields, and academic halls; and administrative functions like enrollment, guidance, transcripts, and more.

Attending college online may be one way to reduce your fee requirements.”

Attending college online may be one way to reduce your fee requirements. This is because you will often be excused from contributing to many of these on-campus amenities and resources. Many schools which only operate online can charge generally lower fee packages because they are not invested in such amenities.

That said, as an online student, there are still many fees that you will have to pay, including some that only apply to online students. In addition to sharing most of the same administrative fees as your on-campus counterparts, you will also pay for some fairly sophisticated (and therefore expensive) technology. So while online college may offer some relief on the cost of fees, your savings will vary significantly from one school to another.

To learn more about college fees and how these can impact the cost of college, check out our Focus on College Fees.

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How does the cost of materials affect the cost of college?

The cost of certain materials may vary depending on whether your courses are taken online or in-person. For on-campus students who must purchase physical texts, the cost can be particularly high. However, on-campus students may also have more opportunities to locate used or previous-edition texts on the open market. Online students who must pay a uniform fee to access digital content may not have this same opportunity.

That said, every school, program, and professor is likely to approach this area differently. As you compare costs between online and in-person education, find out what materials are provided and which materials you will be expected to pay for on your own.

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How do scholarships and grants affect the cost of college?

Scholarships and grants can lower the cost of college, but need-based grants are not available to online students. Overall, your eligibility for either merit-based scholarships or need-based grants could have a profound effect on the overall cost of your college experience. There may be some scholarships or grants which are specifically designed for online college students.

However, there are far more opportunities in circulation today which are only accessible to traditional on-campus students, including federal need-based Pell Grants. This means that on-campus students simply have stronger odds of qualifying for, and therefore securing, grant or scholarship funding. If you believe you might qualify for some of these opportunities, you will want to factor this into your price comparison.

To learn more about such opportunities, check out our Guide to Scholarships and Grants.

Otherwise, jump to our more comprehensive Guide to Paying for College.

Everything is more expensive, college being no exception. Check out our Guide to the Rising Cost of College. We also have a handy breakdown of college fees to help you plan your budget as you prepare for college.

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