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How much does online college cost, really?

How much does online college cost? Our guide breaks down costs and money-saving ideas for anyone considering attending college online.
Written by Hannah Riley, Contributor
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Whether you live far from a college, have children to supervise, or just don't want to attend school in person, attending an online college is a great option.

If you're wondering how much online college costs, this guide includes a breakdown of costs, factors affecting costs, and ways you can save on your online degree. 

Online college costs: A breakdown

The cost of attending online college varies based on the individual school, whether your school is public or private, and if you're from in-state or out-of-state. 

Rate structures differ by college. They may charge by semester, credit hour, or program. Some specific courses may cost more depending on lab fees or extra materials needed. 

According to the Education Data Initiative, the cost of earning a bachelor's degree online with full course load averages $51,091. In-state students pay an average of $38,496. Students attending a school outside their home state spend an average of $54,183. 

Prices vary greatly across colleges. Credit hour costs can range from less than $200 to more than $2,000. At public colleges, the average is $316. Private colleges are slightly more expensive, costing $488 per credit hour. 

Aside from tuition, students must also pay for technology, course materials, textbooks, and other fees. Here is a breakdown of online college costs. 

Tuition costs

Many colleges charge out-of-state students higher tuition fees because their families haven't paid taxes to the state. (Some colleges, however, do not charge out-of-state tuition for 100% online degrees.)

Technology costs

Some programs require learners to pay technology fees that cover the cost of virtual classroom platforms and existing computer-related infrastructure. Technology costs help upgrade and maintain college tech. These costs can range from $5 to $50 per credit hour, depending on the program. 

Course materials and textbooks costs

Textbooks and course materials aren't included in tuition fees. Buying used books may not be possible if a textbook is only available in ebook form. According to the Education Data Initiative, textbooks and materials cost students an average of $450 to $650 per semester.

Additional fees

Additional fees you may face when attending online college include application, orientation, library, and graduation fees. Some schools may charge online students for parking lots or fitness centers you might never use. Be vigilant when researching colleges to avoid these extra costs. 

What factors affect the cost of an online degree?

Public vs. private

As discussed above, on average, private colleges charge more per credit hour than public colleges.

However, financial aid may help offset tuition costs. Public schools receive state funding while private schools do not, so private schools have more control over how they spend their budgets. Private schools sometimes use donations to offer students grants, scholarships, and fellowships. 

In-state vs. out-of-state tuition

Tax dollars help fund public colleges, so some schools charge students from out-of-state more to attend. On average, in-state students pay $38,496 for tuition. Out-of-state students pay an average of $54,183.

Some private colleges don't charge out-of-state tuition, lowering the overall cost for those learners. Entirely virtual schools typically offer the same price to all students, regardless of location. 

Required fees

Attending college in person can come with amenities like fitness centers, library use, or career services centers. Some colleges may charge online students these fees since they theoretically still have the option to use them. 

You may face other online school costs covering access to specific software or a distance learning fee. (You may see these fees when enrolling for specific courses.)

8 ways to save on online college

Fortunately, the cost of earning your degree online doesn't need to be as high as the initial sticker price. 

Start by researching online colleges that accept the FAFSA to save you from any surprises when it's time to enroll.

1. Scholarships

Scholarships may be merit-based, awarded based on financial need, or targeted toward specific identities.

There are general STEM scholarships and scholarships for students with disabilities, minorities in STEM, and women in STEM. Each scholarship has unique requirements, so do your research before submitting your application.

SEE: Best computer science scholarships

2. Grants

Grants are typically need-based and do not need to be repaid. 

Fill out the FAFSA to see if you qualify for the Federal Pell Grant, the Academic Competitiveness Grant, or other money-saving grants. 

3. Work-study programs

Work-study programs allow students to work on or off-campus to pay down their tuition. If you're completing your degree remotely, check to see if your college is affiliated with a non-profit in your area you can complete work-study through. 

If you're interested in work-study, be sure to apply early as these programs have limited funding. 

4. Employer-sponsored programs

Some employers offer to pay a portion of their employee's education costs if the classes benefit the company. These programs are called employer-sponsored or tuition reimbursement and are a major employee perk. 

Earning your degree part-time and online allows you to continue working regular business hours while studying.

5. Student loans

Unlike grants and scholarships, student loans need to be paid back to the lender.

 Federal student loans have fixed and lower interest rates than private student loans. Exhaust your federal loan options before taking out private loans, and beware of predatory lending.

6. Credit transfers

To reduce your overall college cost, you may want to attend a community college for the first couple of years of your degree. Then, transfer to the school you want to be documented on your degree. 

Some colleges accept up to 90 transfer credit hours, which could mean significant savings.

7. Earn credit for work experience

Some colleges offer course credit for military, volunteer, or work experience. The American Council on Education evaluates prior learning and recommends how many credits to award.

Depending on the school, you may be asked to submit a portfolio of completed work or take an exam to evaluate your skills. 

SEE: How to get college credit for work experience

8. Savings on course materials, tech, and textbooks

The cost of textbooks, course materials, and a laptop adds up. To reduce your expenses, try searching for PDF versions of your textbooks online or look into online schools that provide a computer.

Online college vs. in-person college costs: A comparison

Attending online school may be the less expensive option. It depends on whether you live in the same state as your school of choice and what program interests you. 

Decide based on your budget, lifestyle, and personal preferences. 

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