Is Online College Cheaper? We Break it Down

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At first glance, online colleges may seem like a cheaper way to earn your degree. But that's not always the case, as a 2013 survey from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities found. The survey looked at 400 public universities across the U.S. and found that six out of ten charged the same tuition for face-to-face courses as they did for online courses. Thirty-six percent charged more for online tuition.

Still, tuition costs don't tell the whole story. In addition to researching tuition at the cheapest online colleges, you should also consider the ancillary costs that might make online college cheaper than campus-based education. Here's a look at other costs to consider when studying on campus:

  • Housing costs: Will you live on campus in a dormitory? Off-campus in an apartment? Can you stay with family nearby? These are all important questions to think about. The average cost for a dormitory at a four-year university for the 2009-2010 school year was $4,785, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
  • Dining costs: If you're living on campus, are you required to buy a meal plan? Or will you have a kitchen that enables you to cook most of your meals? The average cost for boarding at a four-year university during the 2009-2010 school year was $3,937, reports NCES.

  • Transportation costs: If you're living off-campus, then you'll need to factor in the time and money it takes to get to class. If you're planning to drive, how much is parking, gas and maintenance going to cost? If you're able to use public transportation, what will a monthly pass cost and can you qualify for a student discount?

  • Opportunity costs: Many students hold down a part or full-time job while earning their degree. The flexibility of online programs may make it easier to juggle work obligations with class time, but some students do manage to schedule their classes on campus around their work schedule. It's hard to quantify opportunity cost in dollars and cents, but consider whether studying on campus will be conducive to working simultaneously if that's important to you. If studying on campus will require you to cut back your hours or give up a job, you'll need to decide whether you're prepared for the lost income.

As you can probably tell, the real savings of an online program isn't necessarily tuition. It's the other costs that may make a bigger dent in your budget.

Here, we compare costs for online versus on-campus programs at 10 schools across the United States. Note: The cost of housing is based on NCES figures. We used the average price per gallon of gas as of December 2014 to illustrate the cost of gas.

#1 - South Texas College

South Texas College

South Texas College, located in McAllen, Texas, has a three-tiered tuition model that is the same for online and on-campus students. For the 2013-2014 school year, in-district tuition was $3,246, in-state tuition was $3,530 and out-of-state tuition was $7,260.

#2 - College of Southern Nevada

College of Southern Nevada

Tuition at CSN in Las Vegas varies depending on whether the student is a resident or non-resident and whether the course is lower division (000-200 level) or upper division (300-400). Non-residents taking online courses only pay the resident tuition ($84.50 per credit for lower division, $138,25 for upper division) plus a reduced non-resident fee of $42.25 for lower division courses or $69.25 for upper division.

"Online education has this perception that it's cheaper to produce, but it's not," says Patty Charlton, CSN's vice president for strategic initiatives and administrative services. "We use a learning management system and we use additional add-ons like online tutoring and chat rooms for students so that fee helps offset the cost of online education."

Of course, while some students take courses online and in person, the online learning environment suits CSN's working students. "We have a unique situation where we have students who work in a hotel and they love to jump on their computer after their shift," Charlton says. "A lot of it is tailored to our unique environment."

#3 - Brigham Young University-Idaho

Brigham Young University

At BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, students have the option to start their studies in the university's Pathway Program, which combines online courses with local gatherings, and transition into an online degree program. The cost of the Pathways Program varies depending on where you live. "If you go through this pathway program and the[n] continue on into the online degree program, your credit cost will stay the same," says Beth Breyman in the BYU-Idaho Online Support Center. For students who start an online degree without participating in the Pathway Program, the cost is $156 per credit. "This is the same as an on-campus student who chose to take an online class," Breyman adds. "The only thing that differs is that anyone who takes over 12 credits on campus, will be charged $1,875 no matter how many credits over 12 they take." Note: BYU-Idaho requires that all single students under the age of 30 live in approved housing unless they reside at home with their parents.

#4 - Bellevue University

Bellevue University

At Bellevue University, the cost per credit hour is $250 for undergraduate residential students and $385 for online students taking undergraduate courses. Belleuve has nine campus locations, with its main location in Bellevue, Nebraska, so the cost of nearby housing and transportation would vary depending on which location you choose.

#5 - Southern University at New Orleans

Southern University at New Orleans

Southern University at New Orleans charges the same tuition to online and on-campus students: $645 for a 3-credit course.

#6 - University of Maine at Augusta

University of Maine at Augusta

Maine residents pay $217 per credit hour at University of Maine at Augusta, while out-of-state students pay $525 per credit hour for on campus classes or $271 for online classes.

#7 - Peru State College

Peru State College

At Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska, the tuition rate per credit hour is $140 for on-campus undergraduate classes and $225 for online classes.

#8 - Arizona Western College

Arizona Western College

At Arizona Western College, tuition is the same for online or in-person classes except for an extra $25 fee for each online course. "This fee is due to the extra technology costs associated with these courses and personnel for extended help desk hours to support students taking online classes," explains Alison McLallen Howell, media relations director for Arizona Western College. For full-time students (15 credits), the college charges $2,480 for in-state tuition and $8,085 for out-of-state tuition. Its website lists room and board at $6,216 for on-campus housing and $5,580 for commuter students. Transportation costs are estimated at $2,491 for on-campus students and $4,981 for commuter students.

#9 - South Dakota State University

South Dakota State

South Dakota State University in Brookings charges $323 per credit hour for online courses whether the student is in or out of state. Assuming you took 15 credit hours for two semesters, tuition would total around $9,690. According to NCES, in-state tuition cost $7,713 for the 2013-2014 school year and out-of-state tuition cost $9,795.

#10 - North Carolina State University

North Carolina State University

North Carolina State University, located in Raleigh, bills online credits incrementally. For instance, 9 credit hours for a North Carolina resident cost $1,962, and that same number of credit hours cost non-residents $3,798. Residents taking on-campus classes at 9-11 credit hours would pay $3,111, while non-resident students would pay $8,831.79 (all NCSU tuition figures include required fees).

That's how the price of tuition, housing, and transportation breaks down at 10 sample colleges across the nation, and provides a good reminder that when it comes to college affordability, students must assess at the whole picture. 


  1. Alison McLallen Howell, interview with the author via email, 12/17/2014
  2. Arizona Western, http://www.azwestern.edu/student_services/enrollment_services/financial_aid/cost_of_attendance.html
  3. Bellevue University, http://www.bellevue.edu/financial-services/tuition-and-fees.aspx
  4. Beth Breyman, interview with the author via email, 12/15/2014
  5. Brigham Young University- Idaho, https://pathway.lds.org/Main/Information
  6. Brigham Young University- Idaho Approved Housing, http://www.byui.edu/housing/about-approved-housing-x94634
  7. Brookings Area Transit, http://brookingsareatransit.com/Reservations/RatesFares.aspx
  8. College of Southern Nevada, http://www.csn.edu/pages/629.asp
  9. City of Raleigh, http://www.raleighnc.gov/services/content/PWksTransit/Articles/BusRates.html
  10. Learning House, http://www.learninghouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/2013_10_AASCU-Report_Final-with-Hyperlinks.pdf
  11. McAllen, TX, http://www.mcallen.net/metro/default.aspx
  12. National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/tables/dt10_345.asp
  13. NC State University, http://www.fis.ncsu.edu/cashier/tuition/deugflex.asp
  14. RTC Transit, http://www.rtcsnv.com/transit/fare-information/#.VJN_KMADwA
  15. Patty Charlton and Mary Kaye Bailey, interview with the author via telephone, 12/18/2014
  16. RTA Fare passes, http://www.norta.com/Fares-Passes.aspx
  17. South Dakota State University admissions office, interview with the author, 12/17/2014
  18. Tammy Barney, interview with the author via email, 12/19/2014
  19. TRPTA Rider Information, http://www.trpta.org/trpta-rider-information/
  20. University of Maine at Augusta Tuition and Fees, https://www.uma.edu/tuitionandfees.html,
  21. University of Maine at Augusta, http://www.augustaga.gov/247/Passes-Fares
  22. U.S. Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.gov/petroleum/gasdiesel/