College students have had access to distance learning (a form of online education) at for-profit private schools for quite some time, but more traditional institutions are now offering it as an option. Removing room-and-board costs can cut expenses dramatically, especially at public colleges that already have lower tuition rates than their private counterparts.
To better understand how students can benefit financially from distance learning, Student Loan Hero analysts compiled a list of bachelor’s degree-granting schools where at least 1% of the student body is enrolled exclusively in distance learning. Researchers then ranked the cheapest schools with online-only options. In total, there are 81 online-only options where students can expect to spend less than $5,000 a year for a distance education.
- Students can expect to spend less than $5,000 a year for online-only learning at 81 degree-granting schools. However, all but four of these schools are public schools, where out-of-state students would typically have to pay more to attend.
- California offers residents the cheapest options for distance learning. The nine most affordable degree-granting colleges where at least 1% of the student body is enrolled exclusively for distance learning are public schools in California. North Dakota, Texas, Arizona, Florida and Colorado also have colleges among the top 25.
- Schools that only offer online-only options toward a bachelor’s degree charge less than half, on average, for tuition and fees. The average tuition and fees for online-only schools is $9,295, compared with $21,233 for all degree-granting institutions.
- In the 2020-21 academic year, an average of 37.2% of students opted for or were limited to online-only classes at traditional public schools where distance programs and/or courses were available. Another 42.1% took at least some classes online.
- While 49.1% of students at public schools earn their bachelor’s degree within six years, that number drops to 33% for public schools with only online options. At private nonprofits, 53.7% graduate within six years, but only 32% at schools that only offer distance learning.
There are 81 higher education institutions where online-only students can study for less than $5,000 a year, on average. These are degree-granting schools where at least 1% of the student body is enrolled exclusively for distance learning — which means community colleges and other similar institutions can make the list if they offer at least one bachelor’s degree option.
|Where online-only students can study for less than $5,000 a year|
|Rank||Institution name||State||Published in-district tuition and fees (2020-21)||Cost of books and supplies (2020-21)||Total|
|1||Antelope Valley College||CA||$1,124||$900||$2,024|
|2||San Diego Mesa College||CA||$1,144||$1,080||$2,224|
|5||West Los Angeles College||CA||$1,238||$1,080||$2,318|
|6||Modesto Junior College||CA||$1,270||$1,080||$2,350|
|7||Rio Hondo College||CA||$1,360||$1,080||$2,440|
|9||Feather River College||CA||$1,465||$1,080||$2,545|
|10||Turtle Mountain Community College*||ND||$2,250||$400||$2,650|
|14||Tallahassee Community College||FL||$2,026||$800||$2,826|
|15||Santa Monica College||CA||$1,148||$1,746||$2,894|
|17||Santa Ana College||CA||$1,160||$1,970||$3,130|
|18||Solano Community College||CA||$1,168||$1,970||$3,138|
|19||Colorado Mountain College||CO||$2,340||$840||$3,180|
|20||Pensacola State College||FL||$2,364||$900||$3,264|
|21||Santa Fe College||FL||$2,563||$783||$3,346|
|23||Gulf Coast State College||FL||$2,370||$1,056||$3,426|
|26||San Jacinto College||TX||$1,872||$1,668||$3,540|
|29||Austin Community College District||TX||$2,550||$1,200||$3,750|
|30||Indian River State College||FL||$2,764||$1,000||$3,764|
|31||Oglala Lakota College||SD||$2,684||$1,200||$3,884|
|33||Bay Mills Community College||MI||$3,320||$700||$4,020|
|34||Sinclair Community College||OH||$3,195||$840||$4,035|
|35||Eastern Florida State College||FL||$2,496||$1,600||$4,096|
|36||College of Central Florida||FL||$2,710||$1,400||$4,110|
|37||Truckee Meadows Community College||NV||$2,862||$1,318||$4,180|
|38||St. Johns River State College||FL||$2,830||$1,378||$4,208|
|40||Tyler Junior College||TX||$2,962||$1,300||$4,262|
|41||Florida State College at Jacksonville||FL||$2,878||$1,400||$4,278|
|42||St. Petersburg College||FL||$2,682||$1,600||$4,282|
|43||South Georgia State College||GA||$3,310||$978||$4,288|
|44||Grace Mission University*||CA||$3,120||$1,200||$4,320|
|45||Miami Dade College||FL||$2,838||$1,500||$4,338|
|46||College of Southern Idaho||ID||$3,360||$990||$4,350|
|47||Florida Gateway College||FL||$3,100||$1,271||$4,371|
|48||South Florida State College||FL||$3,165||$1,220||$4,385|
|49||North Florida College||FL||$3,054||$1,400||$4,454|
|51||Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College||GA||$3,565||$900||$4,465|
|52||Elizabeth City State University||NC||$3,260||$1,240||$4,500|
|53||Lorain County Community College||OH||$3,745||$784||$4,529|
|54||Georgia Highlands College||GA||$3,344||$1,200||$4,544|
|55||Seminole State College of Florida||FL||$3,131||$1,430||$4,561|
|56||Northwest Florida State College||FL||$3,133||$1,440||$4,573|
|57||State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota||FL||$3,074||$1,500||$4,574|
|58||East Georgia State College||GA||$3,136||$1,440||$4,576|
|59||Pasco-Hernando State College||FL||$3,155||$1,440||$4,595|
|60||Sioux Falls Seminary*||SD||$3,600||$1,000||$4,600|
|61||University of Hawaii Maui College||HI||$3,278||$1,340||$4,618|
|62||The College of the Florida Keys||FL||$3,276||$1,413||$4,689|
|63||Brigham Young University-Idaho*||ID||$4,300||$400||$4,700|
|64||Lone Star College||TX||$2,160||$2,550||$4,710|
|65||University of Florida Online||FL||$3,876||$890||$4,766|
|66||Henry Ford College||MI||$3,208||$1,584||$4,792|
|68||Bellingham Technical College||WA||$3,915||$930||$4,845|
|69||Spokane Community College||WA||$3,727||$1,134||$4,861|
|69||Spokane Falls Community College||WA||$3,727||$1,134||$4,861|
|72||Western Carolina University||NC||$4,285||$616||$4,901|
|73||Daytona State College||FL||$3,106||$1,800||$4,906|
|75||Great Basin College||NV||$3,248||$1,670||$4,918|
|75||Seattle Central College||WA||$4,053||$865||$4,918|
|77||Atlanta Metropolitan State College||GA||$3,505||$1,440||$4,945|
|78||Western Nevada College||NV||$3,548||$1,400||$4,948|
|79||Skagit Valley College||WA||$4,000||$960||$4,960|
|80||University of North Carolina at Pembroke||NC||$3,456||$1,505||$4,961|
|81||Lower Columbia College||WA||$4,068||$930||$4,998|
A * signifies the school is a private nonprofit (the rest are public)
Source: Student Loan Hero analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The list was limited to schools that reported tuition and other costs, that offer bachelor’s degrees and where at least 1% of the student body was enrolled in distance-only classes in the 2020-21 school year.
California offers residents the best variety of low-priced options for distance learning. The Golden State is home to the nine most affordable degree-granting schools (all public) where at least 1% of the student body is enrolled exclusively for distance learning. Let’s examine the three cheapest colleges for online-only students:
- Antelope Valley College: This Lancaster-based community college offers a bachelor’s degree in airframe manufacturing technology. This program prepares students to produce the structural components of aircraft, both civilian and military.
- San Diego Mesa College: This San Diego community college offers a bachelor’s degree in health information management. Future career options range from coding management to data analysis to compliance coordination.
- MiraCosta College: This community college, which has campuses in Oceanside and Cardiff, offers one bachelor’s degree in biomanufacturing. The program is available to students who’ve received an associate degree in biomanufacturing at the college or completed equivalent coursework elsewhere.
These three colleges are part of a bachelor’s degree pilot program authorized by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, which helps explain why the community colleges appear on the list of bachelor’s degree-granting schools. In fact, 14 of the 15 schools within the pilot program appear on the list, all within the top 25.
Colleges that solely offer online-only classes tend to charge less than half for tuition and fees than other schools that offer both distance learning and in-person instruction.
While the average tuition and fees for online-only schools is $9,295, the average for degree-granting institutions overall is $21,233 — which could require a decent amount of public and/or private student loans. However, if you choose to attend a public school, the average price difference between an online-only school and all public institutions isn’t substantial — $7,050 (online-only) versus $8,305 (public schools overall).
However, private nonprofits without in-person options charge 3.5 times less, on average, than all private nonprofits — $8,289 (exclusively distance learning) versus $29,277 (private nonprofits overall). At private for-profits, it’s $10,990 — on average — for online-exclusive institutions, compared with $17,126 for all such institutions.
|Average published tuition and fees (in district)|
|Public||Private nonprofit||Private for-profit||Total|
|No distance learning programs||$5,000||$27,017||$19,501||$25,031|
|Exclusively distance learning||$7,050||$8,289||$10,990||$9,295|
|All degree-granting institutions||$8,305||$29,277||$17,126||$21,233|
Student Loan Hero senior writer Andrew Pentis says these price differences come down to a few primary factors.
First, schools, both public and private, are businesses with overhead. While online-only programs have expenses that a brick-and-mortar school doesn’t — such as increased technological infrastructure to support a digital learning environment — they’ll generally have less overhead. Without a physical campus, as an example, there are a host of expenses that these online-only schools skip altogether.
A second factor to consider is competition. Online-only colleges — as well as web coding bootcamps and the like — are still competing against each other to stand out from the pack.
“Think of it this way,” says Pentis. “Is there a Harvard or a Yale of online-only colleges yet? Probably not, right? So these online-only schools are still competing for perception, reputation and the eventual mantle of being considered prestigious.”
Traditional schools increase online-only offerings amid pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has had a clear impact on traditional schools since the start of the crisis.
During the 2020-21 academic year, an average of 37.2% of students either chose to or were required to attend online-only classes at traditional public schools where distance programs and/or courses were available, with an additional 42.1% taking at least some classes online.
When it comes to private nonprofits with online programs and/or courses, 25% did all their classes online, while 35% did some of them online. At their for-profit counterparts, 42.9% enrolled online exclusively, while another 31.7% took some courses online.
It’s too soon to tell whether the schools that offered online-only coursework for the first time will continue to do so, as it’s unclear how the pandemic will affect colleges over the long term. However, a pleasant byproduct of that health crisis was that more traditional schools began to offer online-only options for students, which they’ll hopefully choose to continue in the future.
Still, some students have complained they were pushed to online classes because of COVID-19, but weren’t granted discounts for what they consider a subpar learning experience. Some opted — or were required — to live on campus during the school year, even as they did all or much of their work online.
“It’s certainly logical for students to feel shortchanged,” Pentis says.
He explains that students agreed to pay a cost per credit for in-person instruction and all of its advantages — more intimate one-on-one time with professors or collaboration with classmates, for instance — and now they were suddenly being asked to pay the same price for fewer of those benefits.
“I think it’s fair to expect that future students will have the option at colleges and universities to pay smaller amounts for online courses,” Pentis says. “Not all courses should be priced the same.”
Unfortunately, Pentis doesn’t think we’ll be seeing tuition drops anytime soon, which will only add to the U.S. student loan debt burden.
“Like all businesses during the pandemic, schools have seen their bottom line hurt,” Pentis says. “As for whether schools are interested in online education or charging less for it, I think they’re interested in whatever mutually benefits their school operations, as well as the learning experience of their students.”
The graduation data shows that price differences aren’t the only distinctions among the type of schools.
Almost half of students at public schools (49.1%) earn their bachelor’s degree within six years, but that number drops to 33% for public schools with only online options. When it comes to private nonprofits, 53.7% graduate within six years, but only 32% do so at schools that only offer distance learning.
These six-year graduation rates drop at private-for-profits schools (29.8%) and continue to decline at private for-profit schools with exclusively distance learning options (14.1%).
|Percentage of students who earn a bachelor’s degree in 6 years|
|Public||Private Nonprofit||Private for-profit||Total|
|No distance learning programs||38.7%||52.8%||37.1%||50.9%|
|Exclusively distance learning||33.0%||32.0%||14.1%||22.0%|
|All degree-granting institutions||49.1%||53.7%||29.8%||50.3%|
While it’s clear that students at online-only institutions are far less likely to graduate in four years (or six), at least part of that is likely because people with barriers to college attendance and completion seek out those programs in a failed attempt to ameliorate them.
For example, someone working full time while supporting a family might opt for online schooling as the only way to squeeze classes into their schedule, but those scheduling pressures might still prevent them from finishing their schooling. Similarly, lower acceptance standards may mean a higher rate of students who aren’t properly equipped to complete a degree, even in a less rigorous environment.
Pentis feels that a lack of a personal connection may come into play here.
“I think students feel less connected and invested in online education than they do with in-person,” Pentis says. “If you’re studying exclusively online, it’s much harder to make friendships with peers and faculty that will further your learning experience and keep you on track toward earning a degree.”
He adds that this is a major question that schools will have to grapple with: How do they educate their students in an online fashion, keeping up with a newly evolving education industry, while still making them feel a part of the greater campus community? The resolution to this question could potentially alter the future of higher education.