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

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

Key Takeaways

  • Some universities charge the same amount—or even more—for their online programs as they do for conventional, on-campus programs.
  • However, online college costs are frequently cheaper since students enrolled in an online learning format do not pay fees for the upkeep of on-campus infrastructures.
  • Online courses might provide digital resources, cutting down on the price of textbooks. However, online students may not have access to used textbooks.
  • Online students have the same private and federal financial aid opportunities as their on-campus peers as long as the college is accredited.

If you’re seeking an affordable college experience, an online education 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 for online programs, 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 value from your educational experience regardless of how you attend college?

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

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

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How does tuition affect the cost of online learning?

Tuition is the largest single expense determining the cost of your college education. It is the biggest expense regardless of whether you attend college online or in person.

Tuition varies based on several factors that go beyond the way the courses are delivered. According to data from the Education Data Initiative, the average four-year degree is $19,806 a year without financial aid. This fee includes books, supplies, and daily expenses.

The average cost for a traditional 4-year institution is $9,678, while private universities are $38,768.

One of the most common myths is that students save more with online learning. While this may be true when you enroll in an affordable online college, a college’s tuition is on a case-to-case basis.

The average cost for four years of college tuition is generally the same regardless of whether you go to traditional college or online school. In fact, some colleges charge slightly more per credit hour for online programs.

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 because of the indirect expenses that are incurred. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average online education has an average cost of $51,091.

Online undergraduate students studying in-state and out-of-state often pay different tuition rates. In-state students pay an average of $38,496, while out-of-state students pay $54,183 and more. Fortunately, some online colleges offer a flat-rate tuition fee, which means that students pay the same per credit hour cost regardless of residency status.

A college degree at one of the nation’s Ivy League institutions can be more than twice the average online tuition. 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.

Some students pursue an associate’s degree at a community college and transfer those credits into an online bachelor’s degree program. This can save them thousands of dollars in tuition costs.

It is also important to note that colleges often use the term “sticker price” when referring to the total cost of tuition that students without financial assistance pay to attend the school. However, sticker price doesn’t always paint the whole picture.

In many cases, even in online programs, students pay far beyond the advertised sticker price. However, net price calculators online will help you get a picture of what you will actually be spending to attend that college.

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

online student sitting in a cafeteria working on online coursework
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How do housing costs affect the cost of online learning?

The cost of housing is a major factor in a student’s journey in the traditional college experience, but is not usually a factor in online programs. For traditional students, whether you choose dormitory housing, an off-campus apartment, or membership in a sorority or fraternity with residential housing, your housing costs will be a major expense.

Some traditional colleges charge higher fees for room and board than the others. Campus housing costs vary widely for most traditional students depending on how modern, spacious, and technologically-equipped the on-campus accommodations are.

The Education Data Initiative 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 dorms running about $11,520 per year, and the cost of those in private schools averaging about $13,028 per year. In general, four years spent living in a dorm will cost approximately $46,000.

It’s important to note that the school’s location significantly impacts market value for housing. Student housing/room and board in major states, such as California and New York, costs more than Missouri and Alabama. It is crucial to consider the cost of living in the region where your college is located so that you can comparing the cost of room and board on campus vs. living off-campus.

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

Of course, if you are planning to attend online classes, this is one area where you may be able to save a fortune, at least if you have the option of living at home. Obviously, for adult learners paying rent or mortgage, housing is already one of your major living expenses.

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 online programs?

Unfortunately, at many universities, tuition per credit hour is only one aspect of the financial picture. Campus fees impact the price of college by adding between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars to the cost of college each year.

Campus fees include a number of charges, and unfortunately, they are not always disclosed up front. These fees can 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, meal plans, and printing costs
  • Infrastructure like parking lots, athletic fields, and academic halls
  • Administrative functions like enrollment, guidance, and transcripts

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, such as meal plans, parking, or student centers. 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 their on-campus counterparts, online learners will also pay for some fairly sophisticated (and therefore expensive) technology. So while an online degree 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 tuition costs for an online bachelor’s degree?

It’s no secret that the United States is facing significant inflation rates, which affect the cost of materials in higher education. According to a reliable source, the price of books and supplies used in educational contexts has increased by 23% since 2003.

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 online degrees?

Scholarships and grants can lower the cost of online degrees. Overall, your eligibility for either merit-based scholarships or need-based grants could have a profound effect on the overall cost of your online degree. Even better, there may be some scholarships or grants which are specifically designed for online college students.

To learn more about such opportunities, check out our Guide to Scholarships and Grants. For information on how to apply for financial aid, visit the Federal Student Aid website.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the primary difference between the cost of online learning and on-campus college?

Due to lower infrastructure costs, online colleges typically charge less in tuition costs than on-campus colleges providing a traditional education, which also include costs for housing, meals, and campus amenities.

Are there any hidden costs with online or on-campus colleges?

Both options may charge fees for services, exams, activities, or events. It’s important to review fee structures in detail.

How do technology requirements affect costs in online and on-campus colleges?

For remote study, online colleges require technical investments. On-campus students need technology as well, though with fewer stringent restrictions.

Is the quality of education the same between online and on-campus colleges?

As long as the college you are interested in is regionally accredited by one of the six accrediting agencies, you can be assured that the quality of your online degree is equal to one from a traditional college. The six accrediting bodies include:

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)

Can I save money by living off-campus while attending on-campus college?

Although living off-campus might be less expensive than on-campus accommodation, you would still need to budget for rent, utilities, and transportation costs.

online college student listening to an online lecture

How can I tell whether on-campus college will be cheaper than online learning for my college degree?

You must carefully consider several aspects to determine whether or not your online education tuition will be more expensive. Ultimately, you must conduct your research and compare the costs, fees, technology needs, and residency requirements of online classes vs. on-campus programs.

To explore even more resources on how to pay for college, including a deeper look at the ins and outs of financial aid, jump to our more comprehensive Guide to Paying for College.

Everything is more expensive, an online education is 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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