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4 Surprise Factors that Determine Cost and Affordability of an Online University


I’m searching for an affordable online bachelors in business or management. But no two online colleges cost the same amount for this degree. One university can charge $50,000 more for what looks like the same distance degree to me. How do I compare online education cost? Is an expensive online degree better than a cheap online degree?
Rayette, Boise, Idaho


There is no relationship between cost and quality in online education. Paying more for your online college program won’t get you “more” of an education, nor will it necessarily buy you the best online degree in terms of educational quality. The cost—and therefore affordability—of any online degree is a function of four factors.

It may surprise you to learn that none of these factors is correlated with quality. In fact, cheap online degrees usually come from public universities that have residential campuses which are heavily underwritten by your tax dollars.  While distance degrees from public and state universities are cheaper in cost they are at the same time seen as trustworthy educators in the eyes of many local employers. 


1) Is your online school public or private? 

Public online universities cost less because they are subsidized by your tax dollars. When you attend any public college you are attending an institution you have already helped support through your federal and state tax dollars. 

Because public universities receive subsidies through tax funds they do not need to charge you, the online student, as much in tuition and fees. Publicly funded residential colleges have always cost significantly less than their private counterparts.

Similarly, online colleges that are publicly funded are much more affordable than private online colleges.

The rankings of online college affordability undertaken by consistently show that the top-ranked most affordable online degrees across all subject areas, ranging from business to healthcare, come from public or state universities.

2) Where is your online university headquartered?

It costs less to live in certain regions of the country. For example, it is much less expensive to live in Wyoming than it is to live in Massachusetts. No surprise, then, that according to’s National Survey of Online Bachelors in Business, the University of Wyoming offers a business bachelor’s online for about $16,000. On the other hand, the University of Massachusetts, headquartered in high-cost New England, charges almost $58,000.

3) Is your distance learning program a for-profit or a non-profit?

Traditionally, all colleges operated as non-profit agencies. But every year more online colleges are being organized as for-profit businesses. The University of Phoenix Online, operated by the Apollo Group, is the largest online college in the United States. It is also a for-profit company.

Companies that are chartered on a for-profit basis charge more—often two to three times more—for their services.

4) Who accredits your online college?

On average, colleges that are nationally accredited rather than regionally accredited cost less. One reason is because national accreditation is not as widely accepted or as prestigious as regional accreditation.

There is No Relationship Between Cost & Quality in Online Degrees

Paying less for your degree doesn’t mean you will receive less of an education. Compare all your online degree options before you enroll. Your least expensive option will likely come from a local, non-profit, public university.

You can expect to pay two to three times more to attend a private, for-profit college online, but there is no evidence or guarantee that you will receive an academically better online education in exchange.


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The Best Online College Grant and Free Money Financial Aid Programs is a consumer group that publishes online college rankings along the dimensions that matter most to online students themselves: affordability and credibility. All of our information is sourced directly from college and university websites as well government websites such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Our mission:

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