Cheapest Colleges Where Online-Only Students Can Study for Less Than $5,000 a Year

 November 16, 2021
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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.

Key findings

  • 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.

Cheapest schools for online-only college

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
3 MiraCosta College CA $1,152 $1,080 $2,232
4 Shasta College CA $1,187 $1,080 $2,267
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
8 Bakersfield College CA $1,418 $1,080 $2,498
9 Feather River College CA $1,465 $1,080 $2,545
10 Turtle Mountain Community College* ND $2,250 $400 $2,650
11 Odessa College TX $2,280 $522 $2,802
12 Dallas College TX $2,370 $440 $2,810
12 Diné College AZ $1,410 $1,400 $2,810
14 Tallahassee Community College FL $2,026 $800 $2,826
15 Santa Monica College CA $1,148 $1,746 $2,894
16 Cypress College CA $1,146 $1,971 $3,117
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
22 Collin College TX $1,624 $1,800 $3,424
23 Gulf Coast State College FL $2,370 $1,056 $3,426
24 Brazosport College TX $2,401 $1,125 $3,526
25 Foothill College CA $1,563 $1,971 $3,534
26 San Jacinto College TX $1,872 $1,668 $3,540
27 Grayson College TX $2,702 $1,000 $3,702
28 Valencia College FL $2,474 $1,266 $3,740
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
32 Chipola College FL $3,120 $800 $3,920
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
39 Galveston College TX $2,290 $1,938 $4,228
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
50 Midland College TX $2,730 $1,729 $4,459
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
67 Clark College WA $3,957 $870 $4,827
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
71 Bellevue College WA $3,958 $930 $4,888
72 Western Carolina University NC $4,285 $616 $4,901
73 Daytona State College FL $3,106 $1,800 $4,906
74 Snow College UT $3,912 $1,000 $4,912
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.

North Dakota, Texas, Arizona, Florida and Colorado also have colleges among the top 25 cheapest institutions where online-only students can study for less than $5,000 a year.

Online-only options = far cheaper

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.”

Graduation rates far lower at online-only schools

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 said. “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.

Published in Research