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Cost of Online College – Cheap, Expensive, & What’s Worth It

cost of online college

In searching for the perfect distance college program, many students ask, how much does online college cost? The question hinges on affordable and expensive tuition prices. The benefits and downsides of cheap vs. costly schools can be murky or tough to quantify. Many students are attracted to expensive universities and expect a better experience, even if the evidence is suspect.

Overall, there’s no significant difference in the quality of online education received from either affordable or expensive schools. But there are some differences in the experience you might have or the benefits you might receive after graduation.

Today, let’s break down affordable vs. expensive schools in detail. By the end, you’ll know whether you should prioritize the cost of online college for your educational goals.

“Expensive” Schools

What counts as an expensive school or college education varies from person to person. For example, someone with enough family wealth to attend school might not consider $50,000 a year expensive.

However, most students need loans or pursue other means of financial aid. The most expensive schools in the United States have approximately $76,000 or more annual tuition rates. These prices include room and board but do not include ancillary fees like the cost of textbooks.

In contrast, more affordable schools may cost only several thousand dollars annually. Typically, community colleges, certain online universities, and colleges whose programs are paid for through scholarships, grants, and other benefits.

According to other data, the average cost for a college education is approximately $35,000 per year. Generally, if students pay this much for their college tuition, it is not “expensive” since it’s average.

What counts as expensive is different for every person. Before signing up for a given school, students should consider their budgets, educational and career goals, and other factors. That’s the only way to determine whether a university is too expensive for their needs.

The Cost of Online College

The exact cost of online college tuition can be affected by many factors. These factors can influence whether a school’s education is expensive or affordable for most students

How Does Accreditation Affect the Cost of Online College?

Firstly, accreditation can significantly impact college tuition prices. Generally, colleges are regionally accredited—however, some are nationally accredited, including online colleges.

Regionally accredited colleges typically cost more than nationally accredited colleges. That’s because local and competitive organizations offer regional accreditation.

Nationally accredited colleges typically cost less for tuition, room and board, and other factors. National accreditation isn’t as prestigious or widely accepted as regional accreditation. Furthermore, one can typically find both regionally accredited and nationally accredited colleges.

Basically, online and in-person colleges with regional accreditation often cost more than those with only national accreditation.

How Does Public vs. Private Affect the Cost of Online College?

Next, whether a college is publicly or privately funded can influence its overall cost. Public schools usually charge their students less since federal and state tax dollars subsidize them.

When students attend a public college, they attend an institution they ostensibly helped to support through taxation. Therefore, students are not charged as much in tuition, fees, etc. Overall, publicly funded and residential colleges cost much less than private colleges. The same is true for online colleges that receive funding from public sources. The cost of public online colleges are more affordable than private online colleges.

The exact opposite is true for private schools. Privately funded colleges cost more because their students have not already paid for their services via taxation. Privately funded colleges get money from donations (such as alumni) or other organizations.

This funding method is also accurate for private online colleges. Generally, the most expensive online universities are funded from private rather than public sources.

How Location Affect the Cost of Online College

A college’s location can further impact its overall or average cost. For example, it’s more expensive to live in Massachusetts than in Wyoming. Therefore, Massachusetts schools usually cost more than Wyoming schools. This cost differential reflects the increased cost of operations in maintaining a college in Massachusetts compared to Wyoming.

However, this trend is also seen in online schools that don’t necessarily have in-person campuses. Online schools still have locations, which cost money to maintain. The cost of online colleges in low-cost living areas is usually cheaper than online schools in opposite locations.

For instance, data indicates that an online bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Wyoming is around $16,000. The same type of program offered by the University of Massachusetts costs $58,000 on average.

How Does For-Profit vs. Non-Profit Affect the Cost of Online College?

Then there are for-profit and nonprofit differences between colleges. In the past, almost all universities were non-profit agencies. However, that has changed in recent decades. Each year, more and more colleges, especially online colleges, are being reorganized or chartered as for-profit businesses.

For instance, the University of Phoenix Online is the largest online school in the US. It is a for-profit company, first and foremost.

According to data, universities chartered as for-profit organizations often charge more for their tuition. Prices can be two or three times more than non-profit universities. That’s because for-profit schools charge more to make more money for their operators or investors. Non-profit schools are more interested in offering education to people for the sake of it. While they still need to make money to stay in business, they get more money from donations and charitable organizations than from tuition outright.

Overall, the cost of non-profit online colleges are usually cheaper than for-profit colleges.

How Reputation Affects the Cost of Online College

Lastly, one has to consider the intangible factor of school reputation. Simply put, it’s expensive to go to Harvard because it’s Harvard. While this is tautological or can be seen as recursive, it’s nonetheless true.

Given two identical job candidates with two identical degrees, an employer will more likely choose the candidate with a degree from Harvard than a degree from another school. Certain long-standing institutions, including the Ivy League schools, carry more social weight. So they charge more since their degrees are more valuable in many circumstances.

This perception doesn’t mean that schools without reputations are not worthwhile. It means that new online and in-person universities tend to be more affordable than universities with excellent reputations and over 100 years of history.

Benefits of Attending Expensive Universities

Some prospective college students might wonder why they should attend expensive online or in-person schools in the first place. While the price tag of some universities can seem overwhelming, there are some benefits to consider:

Extra Social Accolades

For starters, there are social accolades and extra benefits. In many job industries, attending Harvard or a similar school will rank one higher than an equally qualified candidate with a degree from another school.

However, this isn’t always the case for jobs or specific industries. Typically, degree origin is more important in social enterprises such as business. In more technical sectors, such as programming, the skill level is more important than where one obtained their degree.

Therefore, students should consider the benefit of earning a more expensive degree from a high-value school. If students don’t think that the social accolades will be worthwhile in their career, they can dismiss this benefit.

More Student Resources

Many expensive schools funnel that extra cash they make into student amenities or resources. These amenities and resources can include:

  • Higher-quality student dorms
  • Student study centers
  • Shops and recreational activities on campus
  • Student labs
  • Career services

Of course, students who attend school online may not necessarily benefit from all of these improvements. They might see a few benefits in improving student portals or online resources. But most of these advantages are only enjoyed by in-person students. Therefore, if a student attends an expensive online school, this benefit is not as worthwhile as it could be.

Greater Networking Opportunities

Lastly, many more expensive schools provide more significant networking opportunities to attendees. But this isn’t due to the schools themselves.

Individuals who can afford high-priced tuition often come from successful families or important social circles. Indeed, the networking opportunities one makes at school can set them up for success throughout their career. It can also result in lifelong friendships.

Benefits of Attending Affordable Schools

While there are some advantages to attending expensive schools, there are also benefits to attending affordable schools. Many of these benefits impact both online and in-person students:

Fewer/No Loans Required

Affordable schools require fewer or no loans to complete an education. For example, most students can attend community college for the first two years. They can frequently pay for this school out-of-pocket or put money on typical credit cards.

All affordable schools, by nature, can be paid for more easily. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be affordable at all. Fewer loans can lead to more benefits in the future, such as:

  • Freeing up money after graduation for other things, like bills
  • Higher credit scores since graduates will not have to carry debt for as long

This benefit is often enough to convince students to attend more affordable schools than expensive universities.

Scheduling Flexibility

Affordable schools often provide extra scheduling flexibility. This statement isn’t a universal rule but certainly counts for online or hybrid programs. These programs provide additional flexibility for working adults or part-time students.

That’s why many of the best online degree programs are so affordable. They aren’t as rigid with their scheduling or class requirements, enabling students to complete work on asynchronous schedules. This flexibility can significantly benefit students who must work while completing their education. Or they can be beneficial if one has to attend to family or other responsibilities while attending school.

Same Career Prospects for Less Money

Whether one gets an engineering degree at Harvard or a local state school, they’ll have almost all of the same career opportunities.

The degree itself is vital in the real world, especially as graduates get further from their college years. In many ways, a degree is just a means to get one’s foot in the door into their chosen career path. Then, once they get their first job, performance at that job and growing experience matter more for acquiring future positions or promotions. In many ways, where a degree comes from matters less and less with each passing year.

Therefore, students can attend an affordable school and see the same career prospects while spending less money than students attending expensive schools.

Is Expensive School Better Than Affordable School?

Not necessarily. The cost of online or traditional college does not necessarily reflect the quality of the education one will receive.

The primary goal behind going to college is to increase one’s skills and qualifications. Ideally, a college education prepares students for future career paths and job positions with greater salaries and responsibilities. Both affordable and expensive schools alike can provide this. Expensive schools may have some intangible or tangible benefits. But those benefits do not impact the actual quality of a degree program.

For example, a student can attend Harvard University and earn a business degree. They can also attend a local or state university and get a degree in business at the same level. Both degree programs will include many of the same courses and topics. By the end, students from either program should learn roughly the same information.

Therefore, the perks of attending an expensive school do not directly relate to the education quality. Instead, students should consider how those perks impact their career prospects and futures.

Consider Your Goals

Consider your overall goals if you’re unsure if the cost of online college is right for you.

  • For instance, decide whether you plan to enter an industry where socializing and networking are essential. Networking is typically crucial in the business and arts industries. It is less critical in the technical or manufacturing sectors. Going to an expensive school with a broad alumni network might be worthwhile if it’s the former.
  • Decide whether you want to focus on education or cultivate long-term relationships with peers and professors. Again, the enhanced networking opportunities from expensive or well-known schools might be worthwhile in this case.
  • Decide whether you’ll primarily pursue education online or in person. As noted above, many of the benefits of attending an expensive school are mitigated or neutralized through online education. Simply put, you can’t network as effectively if you attend class online rather than in person.

Students should decide whether their goals are congruent with the benefits of expensive universities before signing on the dotted line.

Decide How Much is Too Much for Education

Then there’s the cost of online college to consider. Students usually have to come up with a budget or maximum amount they can spend on college. The majority of Americans cannot pay for college outright. They must rely on grants, scholarships, or loans to get a higher education.

Even if you get a solid loan, you’ll eventually have to pay back that money. Furthermore, many student loans come with interest rates that can significantly increase how much you pay in the long run. Lots of college graduates are experiencing this problem right now.

Students should consider:

  • How likely it is the need to take out loans to finish school
  • How comfortable they are paying for those loans for years and potentially decades in the future

The more expensive a school is, the more loans you’ll likely need to take out (unless you are fortunate with scholarships). If a school seems too costly for your budget, choose an affordable option. Remember, an inexpensive school can be just as academically rigorous and professionally helpful as an expensive school.

Is an Expensive Online Degree Better Than an Affordable Online Degree?

No. In fact, it’s often the opposite!

Because many of the benefits of attending an expensive school are negated through online learning, it is less worthwhile for online students to attend expensive universities. This fact is reflected in many Ivy League schools. Schools like Harvard, for instance, don’t offer exclusively online programs. They only offer a few online classes relative to their in-person offerings.

Therefore, an expensive online degree is not better than an affordable one. Affordable degrees are better for many students because they:

  • Don’t require students to take out as many student loans
  • Place less of a financial burden on students after graduation
  • Provide the same quality of education throughout the programs they offer
  • Offer many benefits of online learning, such as schedule flexibility, asynchronous learning, etc.

In other words, students should not prioritize the expensive cost of online college over affordable ones under any circumstances. The only times when it might be worthwhile to go to an expensive school include:

  • When you have your heart set on a specific university and want to attend there no matter what. For example, you want to go to the same school your parents did.
  • When a specific school offers the exact right program for your career goals, and you can’t find it anywhere else
  • When you have a unique scholarship or grant opportunity for a specific university that would offset its otherwise high costs

Under these circumstances, expensive schools could still be worthwhile even if you attend online. But in general, most online students will benefit from picking affordable online colleges instead of expensive ones.

Don’t let the Cost of Online College Change Your Educational Dreams!

All in all, there is no correlation between the cost of online college and the type of education you receive, whether you attend an affordable or expensive school. This statement is even more true if you plan to attend school online. Online degree programs are generally more affordable, but the tuition price does not impact their quality in most cases. Therefore, it’s a good idea to consider your career goals, overall budget level, and other factors. That’s the best way to ensure you choose the right online program for your unique needs.

If you’re still stumped, can help. Our thorough list of top online schools can help you find the perfect college in no time. Check out our resources today!

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