What are the Most Affordable Online Universities in the US?

Online universities tend to offer programs at lower costs per credit hour than traditional schools, but the price of any program depends on the institution, the type of degree you’re pursuing, the availability of financial aid, and myriad other factors. The more you know about what type of education you want to pursue, the better you will be able to predict the final cost. Seeking the least expensive education is not the wisest way to choose your online university. It is better to balance the financial and opportunity costs with the eventual benefits when deciding which program fits your needs.

The Cost of an Online Education

Universities express their costs in dollars per credit-hour, and the prices range widely based on the institution, the type of class, your standing as a student, and other variables. The low end of costs per credit hour is between $200-$300, and many classes cost more. Students of online universities need computers and internet access, both of which also add to the total cost of an online education.

Many factors influence the cost of tuition for both online and brick-and-mortar schools. The following factors often contribute to your annual college bill:

Making a budget that accounts for all costs for one semester at a university, then comparing it to other schools that interest you can help you choose which plan is best. Fortunately, most online universities offer similar financial aid options to their campus-based counterparts. The chart below shows the average costs, including some financial aid data, of an undergraduate education.

Location Matters

The state you live in or where your university is headquartered can affect the amount of financial aid you may get. The U.S. Department of Education provides data about state spending on tuition aid which can help you see where you are likely to get better financial assistance.

Depending on the program you wish to enroll in, make sure to ask an admissions advisor if on-site courses are required to complete the program. Many nursing programs have a clinical component in addition to formal classroom training.  It may be necessary for you to travel out of your area to clinical sites so do your research in advance will prevent lengthy commutes and other hassles.

Opportunity Costs

Many students choose online universities because they can keep their jobs while furthering their education. A four year degree at a residential college eliminates a lot of time that could be used to earn a consistent paycheck. By managing your time so that you can both work and take classes, you may maximize your earnings in the long run.

However, working and going to school at the same time can put a strain on you that will affect your performance both at work and in classes. Knowing your own limits and managing your schedule accordingly is the only way to efficiently combine work, school, and other responsibilities. The eventual payoff from achieving a higher level of degree can easily compensate for the time and financial investment it requires. The graph below compares median earnings and unemployment rates for people at different levels of education.

Financial Aid

One of the most common ways for students finance their educations is through federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans and grants. The government offers several loan and grant options for higher education students, including:

  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will determine how much in federally subsidized and unsubsidized loans you qualify, based on your financial needs.
  • Federal Pell Grants do not have to be repaid, and the amount depends on your status as a full- or part-time student, financial need, and other factors. The maximum amount of a Pell grant for the 2011-2012 school year is $5,550. In the 2008-09 school year, students at the University of Phoenix, one of the largest online universities, received over half a billion dollars in Federal Pell grants to help finance their educations.
  • Perkins and Direct Stafford loans are governmental loans that must be paid back, but are offered at relatively low interest rates and flexible payback schedules.

Most online and campus universities also offer merit based scholarships and grants for people studying in high demand fields. It is important to remember that the financial sacrifices you make for your education may be paid off by your increased earning potential after earning a degree.

Many online universities offer special programs for military servicemembers and their spouses.

Servicemember Opportunity Colleges

Men and women on active military duty and veterans of the armed forces are often offered special financing and scheduling flexibility at online universities. An organization called Servicemember Opportunity Colleges (SOC) collaborates with the U.S. Department of Defense and with 15 educational institutions to ensure that members of the military can pursue higher education during and after their service. Spouses of servicemembers can also receive thousands of dollars to pursue education and certification.

Other Considerations that Affect Cost

The length of time you spend in school affects the overall cost of your education. Some scholarships and loans are only available to full time students, and many schools will offer price cuts on credit hours if you enroll for more at once. Taking the time to research your potential school’s pricing structure and financial aid offerings will save you money by the time your education is finished.


Any university claiming to provide a good education needs to be accredited by a reputable organization such as the Higher Learning Commission. Accreditation requires a university to prove that their courses meet certain standards and cover the material necessary to prepare students to enter a competitive career environment. Unaccredited universities may be less expensive, but the education they offer will be substandard and not worth the money.

The U.S. Department of Education provides a database of regional and national institutional agencies for postsecondary students. The regional and national accrediting agencies listed below are recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education as reliable authorities:

In addition to regional and national institutional agencies, specialized accrediting agencies also exist. Specialized accrediting agencies are expert in their fields and help to maintain standards in their professional fields of study.

Non-Profit vs. For-Profit

One key trait under the hood of any online university is whether the institution is for-profit or not. Many online universities are owned by parent companies with a strong profit motive. These organizations are run as businesses, first and foremost, and while they may provide a high caliber education, they are also trying to maximize revenue. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should only choose non-profit online universities, but you should examine the values of any institution you may attend and make sure they match your own.

The U.S. Department of Education’s College Transparency and Affordability Center web site is a good resource for learning whether a college is non-profit or not, as well as average annual costs and pricing trends for colleges across the U.S.

Religious Affiliation

Some online universities are affiliated with a particular religious group and therefore have certain religious values baked into their program offerings. If you are religious, make sure you know and are comfortable with the affiliation of any online university you consider. Schools are usually quite public about their affiliations, and a quick scan of an institution’s website will tell you what belief system they endorse.

How to Choose your Online University

If you’re going back to school, or going for the first time, you obviously have ambition and goals that you’ve set for yourself. Look at your goals, and see how you can meet them while staying within your financial comfort zone and still using your time the way you want to. Ask yourself the following questions to determine if an online school fits your unique needs:

  1. Does the school offer your desired major and specialization?
  2. What are the technical requirements for students participating in online study?
  3. Is the school reputable, accredited, and well-established in the educational community?
  4. Are scholarships, loans, and other forms of financial aid available for those who qualify
  5. Will the school prepare me to sit for certification exams and other professional assessments?

The above outlined factors are all important to consider, but the reason you’re going to school is to make yourself happier and more productive, so before making any decisions, ask yourself whether what you’re doing serves that goal.

University of Phoenix offers over 15 programs and over 50 concentrations. Students enrolled at University of Phoenix have the opportunity to earn associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. The University has more than 100 locations worldwide, in addition to a wide variety of degree programs and courses offered entirely online.

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Through its online program, Walden University confers bachelor degrees, master degrees, and doctorate degrees, including the Bachelor of Science (BS), Master of Science (MS), Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Public Health (MPH), Education Specialist (Ed.S.), Doctor of Education (Ed.D), Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), and Ph.D. Graduates are successful throughout the spectrum of the workforce.

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