Online College Costs: A Breakdown of Tuition and Fees

Written by: Genevieve Carlton
Published: September 14, 2020

Online colleges offer an accessible, flexible route to a degree. Distance learning often appeals to working professionals balancing school with other responsibilities. Earning a degree can mean more job opportunities and a higher earning potential.

But how much does online college cost? Many colleges offer online bachelor’s programs for under $10,000 per year in tuition and fees. Two-year colleges cost even less, allowing students to save thousands by earning credits online.

Online students qualify for many of the same financial aid opportunities as on-campus students. In 2018, college students received more than $8,000 in grants and scholarships, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). By researching financial aid and choosing an affordable online college, prospective students can potentially cover the cost of tuition and fees.

How Much Does Online College Cost?

The average cost of online college in 2020 ranged from $9,600-$15,150 per year. Public online colleges offer the lowest tuition rate for in-state students, while students pay a higher amount for out-of-state and private college tuition.

Several factors shape the cost of online college, including the type of school, the degree level, and any online tuition discounts. In general, two-year colleges charge less than four-year colleges, and public universities cost less than private universities. Distance learners may benefit from online tuition discounts compared with on-campus tuition rates.

In addition, when considering online college costs, prospective students must also factor in the cost of housing and other expenses. Students often spend around $10,000 per year in expenses on top of tuition. College students can save on housing, commuting, and parking costs by taking their classes online.

Is an Online Degree Cheaper Than a Traditional Degree?

While the average cost of online college can run less than traditional schools, tuition costs vary widely depending on the school. In general, in-state public schools charge the lowest tuition rates, while private colleges and universities charge the highest tuition rates. Prospective students can learn more about costs at different types of schools below.

In-State vs. Out-Of-State Colleges

Tuition at public colleges depends on students’ residency status. Public colleges offer significant tuition discounts for in-state students. In 2017, students paid an average of $8,800 in in-state tuition and fees at four-year universities, according to the NCES. Out-of-state students paid nearly three times as much in tuition and fees, or an average of $24,850 per year.

Public schools offer tuition discounts for state residents because state funding provides part of their operating expenses. As a result, students who choose an in-state public school can save thousands in tuition costs each year.

Many public colleges offer tuition discounts for online students. Some charge the in-state tuition rate for all distance learners, regardless of their residency. Others provide lower tuition rates for online learners compared to out-of-state, on-campus students. As a result, the average cost of online college at a public institution often falls below out-of-state tuition rates.

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Colleges

Two-year colleges generally cost less than four-year colleges. For example, the most affordable four-year colleges charge nearly $9,000 per year in tuition and fees while the average cost of a two-year public college hovers around $3,000 per year, reports the NCES.

At a two-year college, students can pursue an associate degree in business, liberal arts, education, or a vocational field. Many community colleges offer courses that fulfill the general education requirements at four-year colleges. A growing number of two-year colleges offer online programs in a variety of majors. Students can also earn credits online at a community college and transfer the credits to a four-year school.

Online learners may benefit from attending a two-year college to meet the general education requirements for a bachelor’s degree. By earning an associate degree and transferring into a four-year school, students can save a significant amount on their bachelor’s degree.

Public vs. Private Colleges

While public colleges receive state funding, private colleges do not. As a result, private colleges generally charge more than public schools. Students paying the in-state tuition rate at public four-year colleges paid around $8,800 per year in 2017, while private school students paid around $29,500 per year, according to the NCES.

However, the actual cost of a private college often falls below the reported tuition price since private colleges often offer more financial aid than public colleges. Private universities use their endowments to financially support students through grants, scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships. Learners qualify for these awards based on their financial need and academic merit.

Some private schools offer tuition discounts for distance learners. Online students may also benefit from not paying certain fees as part of their degree.

For-Profit vs. Nonprofit Colleges

For-profit colleges operate to make a profit for investors. As a result, these schools design their programs to turn a profit. Many for-profit schools invest in marketing and recruitment to raise revenues. In contrast, nonprofit colleges invest any profits in meeting their educational goals.

Nonprofit colleges include both public and private schools. While the average tuition and fees at nonprofit colleges range from $9,200-$35,800 per year, depending on whether the school is public or private, for-profit colleges charge around $17,300 per year, according to the NCES.

Some for-profit colleges operate like diploma mills with low educational standards. However, others offer valuable training in vocational or trade programs. For example, technical schools generally operate on a for-profit model. Students considering online for-profit schools should carefully research the school’s accreditation status, eligibility for federal financial aid, and student learning outcomes.

Paying for Online College

While the average cost of online college can be cheaper than a traditional school, many online learners rely on financial aid to pay for school. Online students qualify for many of the same financial aid opportunities as on-campus students. This section outlines several types of financial aid and scholarship opportunities for online learners.

Fill Out the FAFSA

For most students, completing the FAFSA is the first step in paying for online college. The FAFSA qualifies students for federal financial aid programs, including grants, loans, and work-study opportunities.

Completing the FAFSA takes under an hour. Applicants must provide a Social Security number, federal tax information, and records of any untaxed income and assets. Dependent students must provide parental financial information on the FAFSA. Independent students, including married students and graduate students, do not need to submit their parents’ financial information.

After submitting the FAFSA, the federal student aid office creates a Student Aid Report (SAR) for the applicant. The SAR also goes to the student’s school, which sends an award letter to the student.

The FAFSA does not just qualify students for federal programs. Many grants and scholarships require learners to submit a FAFSA to receive need-based financial aid.


Around 70% of college students take out loans to pay for school. Loans provide money to cover tuition and fees. Borrowers who take out federal or private student loans agree to repay the loan, plus interest. Students can qualify for federal student loans by completing the FAFSA. Schools then administer the federal aid program, distributing funds to cover tuition.

When taking out loans, borrowers should carefully review the interest rates, deferment policies, and repayment schedule. Learners with loans from multiple lenders can also consider loan consolidation to potentially lower their monthly payment or secure a lower interest rate.

Federal loans offer several benefits over private loans, including interest deferment and income-based repayment plans. As a result, students should first consider federal loans before turning to private loans. Keep in mind that only accredited schools meet the requirements for federal loans.

Work Study

Work-study programs provide part-time jobs to students who meet financial need requirements. Undergraduate, graduate, and professional students qualify for the federal work-study program by completing the FAFSA.

Schools administer the federal work-study program and connect students with job opportunities both on campus and off campus. Some learners work in jobs related to their field of study, providing valuable professional experience. Work-study students receive at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked. The program caps how many hours students can work in a month.

Because work-study programs include in-person work requirements, this form of financial aid may not work for many online learners. However, online students attending a local school can consider work-study programs as an option to pay for college. Some schools may connect online learners with nearby work-study opportunities or provide work-study jobs through an online tutoring center or on a satellite campus.


Grants provide free money toward a college degree, typically with no expectation that recipients repay the award. Most grants are need-based financial aid. The federal Pell Grant supports undergraduate students who demonstrate exceptional financial need. Qualifying students can receive up to $6,345 per year toward the cost of college, including accredited online programs. To receive federal grants, students must submit the FAFSA form every year.

States and colleges also support students through grant programs. Online learners should research opportunities in their state and reach out to their school’s financial aid office to learn more about grants.

Some grants may include service requirements. For example, the federal TEACH Grant funds students enrolled in teaching programs. If recipients do not meet the service requirement of teaching in a high-need area or low-income school after graduation, the grant converts to a loan.


Scholarships help students cover the cost of tuition, fees, and books. Unlike loans, recipients do not need to repay scholarships, making them one of the best forms of financial aid.

Many scholarships limit eligibility to students attending an accredited college or university. Online students enrolled in an accredited institution qualify for nearly all of these scholarships. Rather than restricting the scholarship search to awards for distance learners, online students should look broadly for scholarships based on their major, degree level, and school.

Scholarships offer both need-based and merit-based awards. Need-based scholarships may set a minimum family income or require proof of financial need. Merit-based awards often set a minimum GPA for consideration.

In addition to scholarships from private foundations, professional organizations, and private donors, colleges and departments also support students with scholarships. The next section introduces scholarship opportunities for online learners.

Scholarships for Online Students

Many students cannot afford the average cost of online college without financial aid. Fortunately, online students qualify for many scholarship and grant opportunities. These scholarships can provide thousands of dollars toward the cost of online college, and many support online majors at all degree levels.

Greenhouse Scholars Program
Who Can Apply: This program supports undergraduates who demonstrate financial need. Applicants must be legal residents of Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, or North Carolina with a minimum 3.5 GPA. The scholarship committee looks for evidence of leadership skills and a commitment to the community. Recipients must attend an accredited institution and receive $5,000 per year.

Unigo Education Matters Scholarship
Who Can Apply: This scholarship funds students who write an essay on the topic of why education matters and what value they hope to receive from college. Applicants must be legal U.S. residents and submit a short essay on why education matters.
Amount: $5,000

Get Educated Online College Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Designed for online learners, this scholarship requires a minimum 3.0 GPA and proof of enrollment at an accredited online program. Applicants submit an essay on what an online college degree means to them, a transcript, and their FAFSA form. Get Educated awards two scholarships each year.
Amount: $1,000

Nitro Scholarship
Who Can Apply: This sweepstakes scholarship funds students enrolled in an accredited college or university in the U.S., including online learners at accredited institutions. Applicants complete an online form to enter the sweepstakes. Nitro awards one scholarship each month throughout the year.
Amount: $2,000 Undergraduate Distance Learning Degrees Academic Scholarships
Who Can Apply: This scholarship supports a college student earning an associate or bachelor’s degree through an online program. Applicants must attend an accredited college or university with at least 30 credits remaining toward their degree. The committee selects winners based on academic history and extracurricular activities.
Amount: $500

AFCEA Educational Foundation Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association offers six types of scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students attending accredited institutions in the U.S. Undergraduate applicants need a minimum 3.0 GPA, while graduate students need a minimum 3.5 GPA.
Amount: $1,000-$3,000