You've probably heard about the growing concern over the magnitude of the national student debt, and the statistics show that there might be something to it. Forbes reported in 2018 that the total amount of money owed by student borrowers is over $1.5 trillion, with the average Class of 2016 graduate carrying more than $37,000 in unpaid college loans.

Steadily increasing tuition rates are certainly part of the reason for those big numbers, but they don't tell the whole story. At public schools in most states, for example, room and board, transportation, books and supplies tend to tend to cost as much or more as tuition and mandatory fees. Here are a few quick data points from the College Board:

How Can I Afford College?

These numbers may seem forbidding, but don't let them discourage you. There are a range of options available for students who are looking to save a few thousand dollars each year on the basic costs of enrollment. Here are three tips to get you started:


David Dollins, associate vice president of enrollment management at Clarion University of Pennsylvania

"Unlike other industries where negotiating price is commonplace, within higher education that practice is not as frequent. With that said, universities are more commonly "discounting" tuition rates (i.e., "sticker price") to draw more students. Savvy families will work to negotiate scholarship amounts and pit another university's (or universities') financial aid package against yours in an effort to leverage more aid dollars off total cost. The challenge, though, is that the Department of Education has very strict regulations on loans and federal grant money, and so more often than not it is the university's own monies that are being utilized to see what might be done, if anything at all. This means that not all schools are in a position to negotiate, so students and families should still keep overall academic fit top of mind. But it never hurts to ask."

Dollins previously served as executive director of undergraduate admissions and orientation at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. Under his leadership, NAU recruited and enrolled six straight, record first-year classes, representing 41.5 percent growth since 2011.

The moral of the story is, don't write off your dream school without making sure you're aware of all the different sources of aid that might be able to help you afford your education! Here are a few important avenues of aid to be aware of when doing your research:

  1. FAFSA. Every student should be familiar with the FAFSA. An acronym for "Free Application for Federal Student Aid," this nationwide form can be your gateway to thousands of potential scholarships, grants and subsidized loans.
  2. Tuition payment plans. Some institutions have financing options to help students spread the cost of their tuition and fees over a series of installments. These plans may come with restrictions, so be sure to talk to your registrar or financial aid advisor for details.
  3. Prepaid tuition plans. This kind of plan allows students, family members and others to purchase tuition credits before university admission is even granted. Tuition credits scale with the cost of tuition, meaning that they'll hold their value per credit hour even as tuition increases.
  4. Guaranteed tuition plans. Some states offer tuition guarantees for resident students. These plans ensure that the tuition rate you pay during your first year of enrollment stays consistent throughout the rest of your degree plan, creating a stable base for budgeting your education expenses.
  5. Institutional grants. Unlike loans, these financial aid awards don't need to be repaid after graduation. In most cases, they are available through individual colleges and universities, so your school's financial aid office should be able to tell you about them. However, grants often come with specific sets of eligibility qualifications and may require applications other than the FAFSA, so it helps to be proactive about pursuing them.
  6. Title IV. Federal student aid initiatives, which include Stafford Loans, Pell Grants and other common programs, all fall under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Only schools included under Title IV may disburse aid from these programs to their students.

10 Online Colleges with the Best Financial Aid in 2019-20

In order to find out which schools offer the most affordable online degree programs when accounting for variable factors such as financial aid and tuition plans, we had to get creative. The U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)'s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) supplies data about higher education, such as cumulative median student debt, average financial aid by student income level and the net price of education after average grant and scholarship aid is factored in. We pulled together data on those points and others, then ran the data through our proprietary ranking methodology to calculate this list.

Please note that this is NOT a list of the cheapest online colleges. In fact, the tuition costs for these colleges can be quite high. However, the large amount of financial assistance that these colleges offer can make them much more affordable than the price tag may lead you to believe!

Read on for our list of the most affordable online colleges and see if one might be right for you. (If you are looking for lists of the cheapest online colleges, check out the "Affordable Online Colleges" sections on our state pages instead.)


Texas Woman's University

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TWU caters to parents — including single parents — through a variety of student services and programs. Single parents have access to budget-friendly family housing, including furnished or unfurnished units of various sizes. Endowments such as the Curry Endowment Fund or the Dawson Endowment, meanwhile, provide scholarships for single parents. Yet another program serving single parents: TWU's Single Parent Resources Information Networking Technology Scholarship (SPRINT), which can help students cover child care expenses. SPRINT also connects students with tailored career, academic and personal development guidance.

Online Learning: From the undergraduate degree to graduate education, single parents wanting to advance their learning can turn to a wide range of online programs offered through Texas Woman's University. Some of the degree programs offered include Criminal Justice, Family Studies, Library Science, and Occupational Therapy, and utilize both hybrid and fully online education. A Doctor of Nursing Practice and PhD in Nursing Science are also available online.


University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire

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For many single parents, a tight budget can make college seem all but impossible. This is precisely why the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire offers a number of scholarships for single parents. While some are single mother scholarships, others are available to dads, too. As of 2013, there were seven such scholarships of various denominations listed on the school's official website. All students are required to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prior to applying.

Online Learning: From individual credit and non-credit courses to full degree programs, single parents can find a variety of options available at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire through online learning. The school offers professional and career-based programs, from a Bachelor's of Science degree in Nursing to an MBA, and beyond.


University of Arizona

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Prospective students at this public research university in Tucson, Arizona, have dozens of online options available across multiple degree levels. Undergraduates can choose from an eclectic array of subjects including informatics, Africana studies and sustainable built environments, while graduate students can either pursue full-fledged master's degree programs or enroll in graduate certificate programs that typically require around 15 credit hours to complete.

What makes UA affordable? One of the main features that landed UA among our most affordable online colleges is its pledge to charge in-state tuition to online students from anywhere in the world. Nonresidents of Arizona paid an average of $24,000 more per year for campus-based tuition than their in-state counterparts in 2018-19, so the savings extended to online degree seekers make for a welcome incentive.


Southern Illinois University-Carbondale

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Southern Illinois University welcomed just 143 students in its inaugural year of 1869, but the 15 decades since have seen it grow into a comprehensive university with a student body of more than 17,000 full- and part-time learners. Online degree programs at SIU feature subjects like mortuary science and aviation technologies at the bachelor's level and several advanced health care programs for graduate students.

What makes SIU-Carbondale affordable? Online students enrolling from within the U.S. have access to in-state tuition rates at SIU, which ran roughly $315 for undergraduates and $460 for graduate students in 2018. Active military servicemembers can reduce that figure even further if they qualify for the discount of $59 per credit hour provided by the institution's Active Duty Scholarship.


Northern Arizona University

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The selection of online programs available at Northern Arizona University is one of the largest among our most affordable online colleges, ranging from the bachelor's level up to the doctorate, with both graduate and undergraduate certificate options as well. This Flagstaff-based school also offers a handful of Personalized Learning online programs with a competency-based schedule, meaning that students set their own deadlines and move through the curriculum at their own pace.

What makes NAU affordable? NAU awards more than $325 million in grants, scholarships and other student aid packages to its campus-based and online students each year. Around a dozen different types of scholarships are available to students who meet the eligibility requirements, including an assistance program specific to students in Personalized Learning programs.


University of Oklahoma - Norman Campus

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The University of Oklahoma was founded in 1890 in Norman, on land that was once a barren prairie. Well over a hundred years later, its annual operating budget is over $2 billion and the enrolled student population numbers nearly 32,000. Online students at OU have a variety of programs to choose from, with options in business, health care, criminal justice, engineering and the humanities.

What makes OU-Norman affordable? Tuition rates for in-state online students at OU are especially affordable, totaling just over $350 per credit hour in tuition and fees for programs offered through the institution's extended campus. Numerous scholarships are available for students in online and hybrid programs, including a tuition waiver for undergraduates returning to school after spending five or more years in the workforce or otherwise away from school.


Ohio University - Main Campus

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Ohio University, the oldest school among our most affordable online colleges, opened in 1808 with one building, one professor and three students. It's grown quite a bit since then -- the campus features seven art galleries, for example -- and the catalog has come to offer a wide range of online programs. Distance education options include associate, bachelor's and master's programs, as well as a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP). What's more, the Athens school partners with several regional community colleges to provide increased opportunities for students.

What makes OHIO affordable? Online attendance costs at Ohio University are negligibly different for in-state and out-of-state residents, differing by just $3 in 2018-19. The institution also offers the OHIO Guarantee, a billing model that locks in a student's tuition and fee rates for 12 consecutive semesters.


Temple University

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Temple University has a unique origin among major research universities: it got its start as a series of informal evening tutoring sessions for students who had to work during the day. It's grown into the largest public research institution in the Philadelphia metro area, operating eight campuses and serving more than 38,000 students each year. A Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.) program is its only online offering for undergraduates, but advanced students can choose from a much larger catalog of graduate and post-graduate degree or certificate programs.

What makes Temple affordable? Students at Temple can take advantage of tuition financing rather than paying their full semester's bill all at once. The Temple Installment Payment Plan (TIPP), an interest-free installment plan that consists of up to ten monthly payments, is one such option.


University of Illinois at Springfield

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The Springfield location is by far the smallest of the three institutions in the University of Illinois system. Its student body of around 5,000 represents about six percent of the system's total enrollment. Still, its online offerings are mighty -- UIS has a portfolio of online degree programs suitable for both graduate and undergraduate students, in addition to a slew of graduate certificate, certification and licensure programs.

What makes UIS affordable? Fully online programs at UIS are assessed different rates for tuition and fees than those delivered on campus, which can lead to a significant cost savings for residents as well as nonresident students. E-tuition rates worked out to less than $400 per credit hour in 2018-19, while in-state and out-of-state rates came to around $450 and $760 respectively.


Florida State University

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Founded in 1851, Florida State University is one of the longest-standing institutions among our most affordable online colleges. Online undergraduate degree paths at this Tallahassee school are "advanced standing" programs, which means that students are generally expected to have completed at least 60 hours of transferrable credit before they're eligible for enrollment. Graduate and certificate plans come with no such restriction.

What makes FSU affordable? Tuition rates for online degree programs at FSU tend to adhere to the same residency requirements as on-campus plans. Out-of-state students who live in one of the 15 member states of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) can qualify for resident tuition rates on select graduate programs through the Academic Common Market.


Oklahoma State University - Main Campus

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The flagship location of Oklahoma State University styles itself as America's Healthiest Campus, hosting a range of programs and services designed to promote physical and emotional wellness. OSU has a healthy set of online offerings as well: in addition to fully online undergraduate (associate and bachelor's) degree and certificate programs, the university presents several hybrid study plans that blend on-campus and online courses.

What makes OSU affordable? Oklahoma residents are charged the same base tuition rate whether they pursue their degrees online or on campus, although fees tend to vary depending on the individual degree program. A financing schedule called the Payment Option Plan allows students to distribute their attendance costs over a series of installments. OSU also offers more than $320 million in scholarships, grants and financial aid each year.

Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2018-19, National Center for Education Statistics,

Other Resources

If you've got questions the information on this page didn't answer, there are other resources that you can look into. The financial aid office at your intended university is always a good bet, for one -- they'll likely have the scoop on institution-specific programs like grants and scholarships that sources outside that particular college may not know about.

Chances are that you'll still need to take out at least one or two student loans to take care of your remaining tuition expenses, but taking an active role in your college finances should help you avoid the worst of it. Don't forget to check out our How to Pay index page for more information, and good luck!

Methodology & Sources