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The Most Affordable Online Colleges with Quality Programs in 2018

When students look for the best higher education opportunities, they often ask one simple question: How much does online college cost? Figuring out what an affordable, cheap online college really is takes some research. For instance, lower cost structures at community colleges make them affordable options for many students who need a two-year degree or want to earn transfer credits. On the other hand, four-year institutions might have higher tuition and greater fee expectations, but they might provide more scholarships, grants and even work-study opportunities that can help with the cost of education. Regardless of the educational path chosen, a student should make sure their most affordable online college also provides a top-notch education.

Affordable online colleges can provide many worthy programs, student services, and a variety of financial aid options. But wading into all the information about each school can be daunting, especially when students aren’t sure where to begin. This guide can help lead the way with pertinent information on what makes a college low-cost, how to evaluate tuition and fees to make a strong comparison between schools, and the importance of choosing a high-value education. We’ll even walk you through the rankings of the cheapest online colleges for 2018 so you can make a well-informed and well-considered decision.

The Most Affordable Online Colleges for 2018

When looking for the right place to pursue their higher education goals, students often examine a variety of factors. One of the most important tends to be affordability. Those colleges that create a rigorous educational experience for a reasonable, affordable price are obviously quite attractive to fiscally-minded students. The schools below have met that goal of blending a high-quality education with a manageable cost. Our ranking of the Most Affordable Online Colleges for 2017-2018 takes into account which schools provide the most programs, financial aid options with lower rates and services necessary for online students while also keeping tuition and fees at a reasonable level.

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Cost and Quality: A Closer Look at the Price of Higher Education

When it comes to the cost of higher education, tuition definitely matters, but it is not always the bottom line – even when it comes to online education. While one college might seem, at first blush, to be more wallet-friendly than another, it’s important to look at every cost associated with attendance. For instance, a college that has a lower tuition than another might also require fees that drive up the cost, making the total cost of attending that more “affordable” college more expensive. Let’s break down the real cost of cheap online colleges.

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What to Expect from Tuition & Fees

Whether a student attends on campus or online, tuition makes up the bulk of college expenses. Tuition rates are usually based on academic period and a credit system. However, figuring out tuition is not as simple as figuring out the number of credits. Other factors come into play; the most important of these is residency. Where a student lives when they begin college helps determine how much that student will pay for tuition. Students who live in the same state as the college they plan to attend can often get the in-state rate, especially if they have lived and worked in the state for the year prior to their enrollment. However, students who attend a school outside of their home state often receive the out-of-state tuition rate, which is usually much higher.

When it comes to online education, how in-state versus out-of-state rates is handled depends on the institution. Some colleges offer in-state tuition to any student in their online programs, while other colleges charge out-of-state tuition to online students or opt to charge a separate price for online education regardless of the student’s location.

Though tuition is often the greatest expense of college, students should be aware of additional fees. Colleges charge fees for a variety of items, including parking, library access, the health services center and graduation. There might also be fees associated with certain classes, such as laboratory fees for science courses. These fees can add up, especially over the course of several years of study.

Students who choose to attend school online can often avoid several fees like parking and activity fees. However, online programs also have their share of fees that can add up just as quickly. Below are some of the most common fees associated with online learning.

  • Technology Fees

    These fees might be charged to online students to help cover the cost of providing programs such as Blackboard, Moodle or other forms of delivery.

  • Assessment Fees

    Assessments in English and math, and occasionally in other subjects, help colleges gauge a student’s aptitude for that particular field before enrollment and decide if students need to take refresher courses.

  • Graduation Fees

    These fees are often charged to those in traditional colleges as well. They are intended to recoup some of the cost the college pays when planning and hosting a large graduation event.

  • Travel Fees

    Some hybrid education courses might require hands-on learning at the school or a specific location, or there might be symposiums or seminars students are required to attend. This travel is at the student’s expense.

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Online students should take into account that certain fees might be levied every year or every semester. They should also consider the fees for an entire degree program so they can make an apples-to-apples comparison of costs.

What You’ll Pay for Room & Board

Many students who choose to attend college also choose to live in a dormitory, especially during their first year on campus. According to The College Board, room and board ranged from $10,440 to $11,890 during the 2016-17 school year, depending on whether a student chose a public or private school. Those who choose online learning have a potentially wider range of living options, such as a shared apartment away from campus.

The Hidden Costs of Higher Education

It’s also important to remember that there are often hidden costs that many students don’t consider. For instance, commuters might have to deal with vehicle maintenance, gas expenses, tolls and parking passes. Those who choose to learn online instead of commuting may have to purchase various software, video chat programs or other tech-based requirements. A student must remember that each and every small charge adds up; to truly stay within budget, all these little extras must be taken into account.

What Are Cheap Online Colleges?

Figuring out what an affordable, cheap online college really is takes some research. For instance, lower cost structures at community colleges make them affordable options for many students who need a two-year degree or want to earn transfer credits. On the other hand, four-year institutions might have higher tuition and greater fee expectations, but they might provide more scholarships, grants and even work-study opportunities that can help with the cost of education. Regardless of the educational path chosen, a student should make sure that while their college is affordable, it also provides a top-notch education.

But what about for-profit colleges? Though these colleges specialize in distance learning, they often come with a host of issues you won’t encounter with not-for-profits. For instance, many for-profit colleges are actually businesses, so they don’t receive as much funding as not-for-profits do, often resulting in higher tuition and fees. In addition, attending some for-profit schools can make a student ineligible for financial aid, so the entire cost would have to be paid out of pocket. No matter what the choice, students should always look at quality first and then find an affordable college that fits their educational and career goals.

Two-Year Colleges: The Most Affordable Path to an Online Degree

Two-year colleges are booming in popularity and for good reason – there’s great savings to be had. Distance learning options at community colleges offer many advantages that just can’t be found at larger universities. Here’s why two-year colleges are worth a look.

Cheaper Tuition Rates

Community colleges keep costs low so more students can afford to attend. These colleges often don’t have the bells and whistles of a larger university, such as numerous athletic teams or a social presence. Students can knock out their prerequisites at these smaller, more affordable colleges and then transfer for their last two years to a larger university to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Targeted Learning

Two-year colleges typically offer a wider range of options than many larger schools do. For instance, community colleges offer certificates and diplomas that take less than two years to complete as well as specialized programs where students learn everything they need to jump into the workforce immediately upon graduation. Programs in medical assisting, medical coding and other allied health programs are quite popular at two-year colleges.

It’s important to remember that many smaller two-year colleges offer online programs, and that can make them the most affordable option for distance learners. Weigh the options carefully, look at the financial aid available and, most importantly, choose a school that provides the right degree and transfer options.

Making Cheap Online Colleges Even More Affordable

Finding financial assistance to help pay for college can turn a borderline affordable school into a cheap one. Though student loans are certainly popular, they must be paid back. It’s always in a student’s best interest to go after funds that don’t require repayment as “free money” can make a huge difference in a student’s budget during school and after graduation. Here are some of the options.

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Scholarships are offered through many avenues, including private organizations, religious groups, schools, non-profits, businesses and individuals. Some scholarships are awarded based on merit, while others are given based on financial need. For some, certain traits will apply, such as race, family history, gender, academics, athletics or participation in a certain group. There are even some scholarships for things you might not expect, like being left-handed or writing the best poem. Best of all, scholarships do not have to be repaid.

Grants are very much like scholarships. Some are awarded based on need, such as the Pell Grant, while others are awarded based on particular traits or areas of study like nursing or teaching. Most, however, are awarded by federal, state or college financial aid offices. In most cases, grants do not have to be repaid. However, if a student drops out of school shortly after starting a semester for which they were awarded the grant, they might be expected to return the money.

Available at the graduate level, this form of financial aid requires students to work for a professor in exchange for a discount on tuition. The student might grade papers, run discussion groups, hold laboratory periods or otherwise help the professor with their duties concerning the class. Some assistantships provide pay rather than reduced tuition, and that pay can be used as the student sees fit, though it is designed to help pay for college expenses.

Although grants and scholarships are the big ways to save, there are small ways to save too. Here are some of the simple ways students can save money on their college education.

Used books are the way to go if at all possible. Some colleges make textbooks available online for free, while some online services allow students to rent the books for a small fee. If a student doesn’t want to borrow the book online but instead wants a physical copy of their own, purchasing a book from a used bookstore is almost always cheaper than buying it new.

Cut back on several dollars a day by making your own breakfast, brewing your own coffee and packing leftovers for lunch. Make a point of eating easy meals at home most of the week, and watch the savings add up.

Public transportation, riding a bike or carpooling can be wonderful options for the student who is struggling to make ends meet or for those who want to save a few dollars.

Many areas around a college campus kindly offer discounts to students, even if you’re not a student at that particular college or university. Get your college ID and make sure to use it everywhere you go. Those 10-percent and 20-percent savings add up to quite a bit over time.

The Importance of a High-Quality Education

No matter how affordable the college, if it isn’t proven to be high quality, it isn’t worth attending. But how can students or parents pin down what creates a quality educational experience? Considering accreditation, graduation rates and reputation can help ensure the chosen college is on the up-and-up. Let’s take a look at what these factors entail.


Accreditation is a vitally important part of the vetting process for any college. Accreditation means an independent agency has thoroughly examined the college or program based on factors like academic excellence, student support, available resources and faculty credentials. A college that earns accreditation has proven it upholds the standards of a quality education. Schools that earn full accreditation have taken part in many years of hard work to reach the milestones necessary for the accrediting body to give them the thumbs-up.

Graduation Rates

College requires a significant amount of time and a solid financial investment. The last thing anyone wants to do is lose all that time and money, so paying close attention to graduation rates is a good idea. A school with a high graduation rate usually means it provides the proper services and support for students to put their best foot forward. Low graduation rates, on the other hand, could mean a lackluster faculty, insufficient courses to allow for graduation or even schools that are actually high-priced diploma mills.


Schools with a great reputation among employers can make it easier for graduates to get a job. If students aren’t landing jobs in their degree fields after graduation, that can be a big red flag that the school hasn’t yet garnered the reputation it needs to allow graduates to truly compete in the job market. This information can usually be found through the career services office at the school, but also keep in mind what word of mouth has to say about employment after graduation.

Cheapest Online Colleges: Past Years’ Top Schools

Curious about how the cheapest online colleges ranked in past years? To see the trends among various colleges, check out these archived rankings from previous years. This can help students make a more informed decision about how much a school’s costs might go up in the future.

RANK COLLEGE ScoreFinancial AidCost
1 University of Wyoming 97.8492%$119 per credit hour
2 University of Illinois at Springfield 96.2396%$286 per credit hour
3 Murray State University 95.9199%$317 per credit hour
4 Lee University 95.5494%$7,200 per semester
5 Pennsylvania State University-World Campus 95.4294%$691 per credit hour
6 University of Minnesota-Crookston 95.3392%$391 per credit hour
7 University of Massachusetts-Amherst 95.2988%$6,341 per semester
8 The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga 95.1196%$529 per credit hour
9 New Mexico Highlands University 95.0195%$200 per credit hour
10 Northern Illinois University 94.7696%$4,733 per semester
11 Mid-Atlantic Christian University 94.67100%$400 per credit hour
12 Langston University 94.6294%$200 per credit hour
13 Hodges University 94.4999%$530 per credit hour
14 Middle Georgia State University 94.1291%$109 per credit hour
15 Fayetteville State University 94.0596%$6,992 per year
16 Grace Bible College 94.05100%$295 per credit hour
17 Youngstown State University 93.9896%$3,950 per semester
18 University of Massachusetts-Lowell 93.9090%$340 per credit hour
19 Florida Atlantic University 93.8487%$105 per credit hour
20 Southern Illinois University-Carbondale 93.8288%$1,206 per credit hour
21 Central Michigan University 93.6692%$395 per credit hour
22 University of South Carolina-Columbia 93.5990%$400 per credit hour
23 University of South Florida-St Petersburg 93.5298%$186 per credit hour
24 The University of Tennessee-Martin 93.3696%$288 per credit hour
25 Baker College 93.32100%$240 per credit hour
26 Albany State University 93.1499%$162 per credit hour
27 Cabarrus College of Health Sciences 93.0393%$375 per credit hour
28 National Louis University 92.9686%$347 per credit hour
29 Plymouth State University 92.9489%$10,700 per year
30 Touro University Worldwide 92.93100%$400 per credit hour
31 Western New Mexico University 92.9397%$189 per credit hour
32 Clayton State University 92.9294%$220 per credit hour
33 Missouri Southern State University 92.8093%$177 per credit hour
34 Eastern Illinois University 92.7993%$285 per credit hour
35 Arkansas State University-Main Campus 92.7595%$254 per credit hour
36 East Tennessee State University 92.7294%$407 per credit hour
37 Valley City State University 92.7099%$5,769 per year
38 New Mexico State University-Main Campus 92.6997%$254 per credit hour
39 University of Central Florida 92.6996%$105 per credit hour
40 University of North Carolina at Pembroke 92.6892%$3,211 per year
41 University of Central Arkansas 92.6895%$197 per credit hour
42 The University of Texas of the Permian Basin 92.6392%$2,014 per semester
43 Shasta Bible College and Graduate School 92.63100%$350 per credit hour
44 Virginia University of Lynchburg 92.63100%$3,600 per semester
45 University of Florida 92.6096%$105 per credit hour
46 University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth 92.5990%$939 per course
47 Brigham Young University-Idaho 92.5571%$156 per credit hour
48 University of South Florida-Main Campus 92.5598%$211 per credit hour
49 Washington State University 92.5579%$543 per credit hour
50 Washburn University 92.5192%$335 per credit hour