The Cost of an Online Degree

From tuition and fees to laptops and high-speed internet, earning an online degree comes with a number of costs. Here’s a detailed breakdown of all the costs you’ll face as an online student, along with key ways you can help drive those costs down.

Last Updated: 07/21/2020
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You want to earn a college degree, but you’re not sure you can afford it. There’s tuition, fees, room and board, parking, labs, and a host of other expenses you need to factor in. But what about an online degree? How do the tuition, fees, and other costs differ from a traditional on-campus degree? And what about laptops, software, online books, and all the other materials that come with remote learning? The following guide breaks down every cost in detail when it comes to earning a degree online.

Tuition for Online Degrees

The overall cost of your degree, especially when it comes to your tuition, can vary by school. Some of the most significant factors that affect your dollar count include whether or not your degree is entirely online, fully on-campus, or a hybrid of the two. In-state and out-of-state tuition also come into play, as well as tuition for undergraduate and graduate programs. You’ll also find that public and private schools usually have different tuition rates, as well as a cost difference between community colleges and universities. There’s a lot to think about.

If you’re interested in finding out exactly what you would pay to attend a particular school, the most reliable and up-to-date source is their tuition and fees page online. Many schools today offer an online tuition and fees calculator that’s tailored to their degree offerings to give you a pretty good sense of what you’ll pay. In the sections that follow, we will go into the details of tuition costs to let you know where all of these factors come from and how they add up.

Online vs. On-Campus Tuition

When comparing fully online programs versus traditional on-campus programs, there are a few things to keep in mind. Online programs tend to have slightly lower tuition rates than on-campus programs (although each school has different pricing structures, so this is not a strict rule across the board, of course). In general, though, why are online tuition costs cheaper than brick-and-mortar schools? There’s a few potential reasons why this is the case.

  • Online programs have fewer overall expenses, since the majority of their students are working from home.
  • Brick-and-mortar programs offer a different college experience, with in-person amenities, which comes as a price. With that, traditional on-campus schools have buildings to maintain, campus property up-keep, increased utility bills, and additional staff and personnel.
  • Class sizes are more limited when it comes to on-campus classes, thus the higher tuition costs per credit, compared to much higher numbers of “seats” available in online classes. In other words, schools can accommodate more students without a big increase in their overhead.
  • Hybrid courses often cost the same as online classes, largely because many of these types of classes only require a handful or fewer on-campus meetings during the duration of the class.

Here’s a comparison of online and on-campus programs by delivery mode for 12-credit terms:

SchoolProgramOnlineOn-Campus
Arizona State University
Nursing, BSN (non-resident)
$6,884
$15,374
University of
Michigan – Dearborn
Graduate degree in College of Education, Health, and Human Services (non-resident)
$9,972
$14,340

In-State vs. Out-of-State Tuition

The discussion of in-state vs. out-of-state tuition matters only when it comes to public colleges and universities in the U.S. Public institutions rely on tax revenue allocations from their respective state governments to help over the cost of operational and educational expenses. Public institutions, as a result, usually offer lower tuition rates than private institutions who do not receive state assistance.

In-state tuition, which is usually lower than out-of-state tuition, is for students who hold residency in the state where the school is located. Out-of-state learners, on the other hand, reside or hold official residency in another U.S. state or territory. In-state students, as residents, pay into the state tax system that helps public universities cover some of their costs. As such, in-state students typically pay less for their education than out-of-state learners.

Comparatively, online degrees typically do not follow the same in-state vs out-of-state tuition guidelines as campus degrees. Most of the time, online programs have an in-state tuition price regardless of where you live or they have their own unique tuition that applies for all online learners.

SchoolProgramOnline In-StateOnline Out-of-State
University of Tennessee – Knoxville
Nursing, BSN
$7,998
$8,898
University of Louisiana at
Lafayette
Health Services Administration, B.S.
$4,560
$5,760

Reciprocity Agreements

While you may not qualify for in-state tuition benefits or perks, you may be eligible for regional benefits through a reciprocity agreement. In these cases, your state would have an agreement with schools in neighboring or close-by states that might give you a break on tuition rates. Reciprocity agreements can also exist between individual universities and have little to do with regional affiliation. Although the benefits don’t always match those offered to in-state learners, it is worth your time investigating whether or not your desired schools have some kind of regional or school-to-school arrangement.

In 2018, for example, students with residency in Colorado saved nearly $26.7 million in tuition by attending out-of-state schools through the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). In this case, for Colorado undergraduate residents, they pay no more than 150% of the in-state tuition at participating schools out-of-state. Comparatively, Colorado residents who attend a school out-of-state that are not a part of the WICHE agreement can expect to spend 300% or more of in-state tuition rates.

Colorado students interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing, for example, could attend Idaho State University under this WICHE agreement. Yearly non-resident tuition at Idaho State is around $22,200, while Colorado residents would pay around $9,000 per year.

Subject of Study

As you research college programs, you will find that online degrees in some subjects may be more affordable than others. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, nearly 60% of public universities “assess tuition based on students’ year of study, major, or both.” Part of the reason is that some subjects and degrees require you to take two years of coursework instead of a full four-year track. Additionally, some subjects require students to take few credits per semester than others, therefore resulting in lower overall tuition fees. Lastly, the individual expenditures for some majors, such as those that include lab studies, expensive scientific equipment, and others, can be offset by their students paying a higher tuition rate per credit.

Degree Level

In many cases, you’ll find that the higher the degree, the more it costs to obtain it. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, as you can see from the chart below that there can be some exceptions. The ADN from Nightingale College cost substantially more than the bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Arlington. This is in part because Nightingale college is a for-profit institution while UT Arlington is a public school. The DNP from the private school, Duke University, however, requires the second fewest number of overall credits but costs the most by more than $10,000.

While you are looking into programs and degrees, it is okay to assume that you’ll have the most for master’s and doctoral degrees. Keep in mind, however, that private and for-profit institutions may actually cost more, even for the associate or bachelor’s degrees.

School Type

As you research your online options, you will encounter two-year public schools, four-year public schools, private not-for-profit institutions, and for-profit schools. We reported earlier in this guide that public institutions, which receive some state financial assistance to cover their operating costs, generally offer lower tuition rates than private institutions.

Two-Year Public Schools

  • Two-year public schools are mostly designed for new and returning students who wish to earn a certificate or associate degree. They are often referred to as junior colleges or community colleges and receive government funding.
  • Depending on the school, you can expect two-year public schools to offer one- and two-year programs in traditional academic subjects such as the hard sciences, mathematics, arts and humanities, and engineering.
  • Monroe Community College (State University of New York (SUNY)-affiliated): Associate of Science in Health Studies, $4,870/year (NY resident); $9,890/year (out-of-state).

Four-Year Public Schools

Private Not-for-Profit Schools

For-Profit Schools

Fees & Online Degrees

Student fees appear on just about every higher education bill. On-campus students may see health fees, recreation fees, lab fees, and more. Online students can also see a handful of required fees headed their way each semester. As a remote learner, you may encounter technology support fees, software or hardware fees, online textbook costs, and online library materials fees. Depending on the school, you might need to pay for some of the same fees as on-campus students pay, as well as some of these below.

Application Fee

On average, you can expect to spend around $40 – $60 per school application. This one-time payment covers the administrative costs incurred by each school to process your application and make sure that all of the necessary materials reach the faculty or admissions committee members they need to.

Technology Fee

Clinical Fee

Supplies

Online Learning Fee

Fees You Won’t See with an Online Degree

Online students still have to eat, pay rent, pay their bills, and buy school supplies. However, there are a number of things they can save money on when they complete their programs online instead of on-campus.

  • Transportation
    Since you’ll be living at home and not having to commute to campus, you will save money on gas or public transportation costs. Additionally, many schools require students to obtain costly parking passes to park on-campus, which you won’t have to worry about.
  • Room and Board
    Even though you will still need to pay your rent or mortgage and buy food, living off-campus at home is typically cheaper than living on-campus and using a student meal plan.
  • Athletic and Student Activity Fees
    Fully online students usually do not need to pay the athletic fee or those associated with convocation centers on-campus. Requirements vary among schools, however, and this cost may be lumped into a larger category. If that’s the case, you could take advantage of on-campus amenities like the gym and recreation halls.

Hardware for Online Learning

Having the right tools is critical to a positive and successful online learning experience. Having good technology, however, doesn’t mean you need the newest and fanciest equipment. You will definitely need an up-to-date computer and an excellent internet connection. Below, we break down the equipment you should consider getting if you are going to be a distance learner.

Chromebooks ($200 – $700)

The Chromebook is a widely popular laptop computer for students today. They provide learners with affordable laptop options so they can connect to the web, complete essential tasks, without tons of bells and whistles. Up-to-date and recent Chromebooks run on the Chrome OS operating system and can easily run most Google and Android apps. Popular applications that work well for these machines include Zoom, WhatsApp, Google Docs, and more.

Pros

  • You will have free access to all Google online products.
  • They store most of their data in the cloud, which is secure and easily backs up your information and files.
  • They are super light and easy to carry.

Pros

  • Chromebooks often have fairly low processing power and may not work well with more robust software applications.
  • Since it uses cloud storage, you will likely have to pay a small fee per month to host all of your files beyond 100 GB in the Google Cloud.
  • Students who rely on Microsoft Office programs will have to use Google’s substitute programs instead.

Who Benefits?

Chromebooks are excellent if you plan on using it for school work only and you need an affordable option. They are lightweight and are easy to carry to and from your job, to the library, and around the house.

Tips

  1. On websites such as newegg.com, you can find refurbished Chromebooks with warranties.

  2. To ensure that your Chromebook keeps running smoothly, Google makes it easy to continue installing updates as they are released.

Laptops ($400 – $2,000+)

Desktop Computers ($300 – $1,300)

Tablets & Smartphones ($75 – $3,500)

More Hardware for School

Software Needs for Online School

The right software can make or break your success as an online student. You’ll want to find  software that you are familiar with or user-friendly programs that you can pick up quickly.  Bear in mind that the software that you are used to using may not provide the best tools to meet the demands of online learning or a healthcare program more generally. Below, we offer some suggestions for user-friendly software that have proven successful for other online learners. Also included in these descriptions is a list of pros and cons and the price ranges you can expect for each.

G Suite ($0)

G Suite is a user-friendly software that is designed to email services, productivity software, cloud storage, calendars, and more into one location. It includes word processing software, spreadsheets, presentation programs, virtual conferencing,  among other pictures that can be helpful for online students.

Pros

  • G Suite keeps a lot of your daily tasks, information, and online activity all in one convenient place.
  • This software automatically backs up to its online cloud, Google Drive, making it one of the safest places to keep your assignments.
  • Some of the more usable features for online students include the ability to collaborate on assignments through shared documents, as well as video chatting.

Pros

  • It can be difficult to use some third-party apps with G Suite.
  • Some students who use the G Suite word processing or spreadsheet features find that they’re not as powerful or contain all the features of Microsoft Word or Excel.

Who Benefits?

Ultimately, all my students can benefit greatly from G Suite because the majority of what you’ll need for class is all in one convenient, secure place.  On the other hand, learners who are accustomed to using  outside software unrelated to Google or G Suite may have a hard time adjusting to the new platform or integrating previous work that they’ve completed.

Tips

This is a very popular program with dedicated websites, such as gsuitetips.com, that offer tips and tricks for getting the most out of G Suite.

Microsoft Bundle ($80 – $100)

Mobile Apps

Connectivity

You must have excellent internet access and connectivity for online learning. We’ve gotten so used to having internet access that we tend to take it for granted—until it doesn’t work. There are high stakes times during your online program where a lack of connectivity can wreak havoc on your progress. For example, you don’t want to encounter internet issues when you’re taking a proctored exam, conducting research for a paper, or consulting with a patient or colleague via video chat. In an emergency, a tablet or smartphone that uses cellular data to access the internet can be a quick save. You’ll want to invest in a sturdy signal and decent equipment at home, in the hopes of avoiding those inconveniences.

Internet ($35 – $100/month)

Some of the cheaper internet plans cost around $35-$50 depending on your location and service provider. You may wish to upgrade your plan in order to get a faster connection if you plan on doing regular video streaming or there are more than a couple using your signal at once. You’ll likely need 25-50 Mbps to have a strong connection for most online activities. Some students even use a hotspot with their smartphones if their plan offers them enough data to do school work remotely.

Modem & Router ($75 – $150)

You will need a modem and a router, or one of the newer modem-router combination boxes, to connect to the internet. Your internet service provider will likely have a recommended setup for you to use, or even provide you with a box. Many people, however, choose to upgrade their equipment to ensure that they’re getting the most out of their internet signal.

Labs & Clinicals

The cost of labs, clinicals, and supplies will vary between programs and locations. Courses with clinical components usually require an additional fee on top of tuition, sometimes around $200. Unfortunately, these fees are required to cover your school’s operating costs and are non-negotiable. You’ll also need several essential supplies and gear for your clinical training and lab work. Here, you can save some money by shopping around for deals or locating gently used items.

Supplies & Gear ($145 – $750)

  • Scrubs and other professional uniforms ($15 – $50):
    Most scrubs and healthcare personnel uniforms are affordable. You can find many different styles and colors online to fit about any budget. You will need at least a few sets of scrubs so you have time to launder them each week.

  • Shoes ($20 – $150):
    Depending on your needs, many nurses’ shoes are in the ~$50 range.

  • Protective gear such as eye protection, face mask, latex gloves (~$50 – $100):
    These items are dependent on your tasks. Leaders at your hospital, clinic, or lab location will educate you on what to buy in this category.

  • Comfortable backpack ($50 – $150):
    You will need to carry books and other supplies regularly. If you plan to carry a computer and other personal items, a bigger bag is better but more costly to get a nice one. You can also consider getting two small packs and only take one or both with you as needed.

  • Watch ($5 – $300):
    It’s best to have your own timepiece, and not use your phone to tell time.

Travel (Varies)

Online healthcare students today often need to travel to hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities in order to complete the critical and laboratory components over there training. Again, costs will vary depending on your location, but you will need to consider how to get to those locations, where you’ll sleep, and how much you can afford to spend to do so.

Without needing a place to stay, transportation costs alone could cost you anywhere from $10 – $50 per trip. If you have the good fortune of living in an area with a strong public transportation system,  that can be a good way to save money. If you need lodging, some of the cheaper options may include staying with a friend or family member nearby or finding a weekly or monthly rental at hotels or Airbnb spots ($50 – $250/night). Your clinicals and labs will have different timeframes and commitments depending on your program, area of specialization, and seniority in the program, so be sure to investigate all of your options carefully in advance.

Books & Learning Materials

The cost of books and materials can add up. Some items are optional, but many are not. You don’t have to buy all books and materials right away, but when you learn what’s required for the program, start shopping around to find the best deals. You may be able to find some cheaper options by renting books.

Books ($30 – $350)

While college textbooks are notoriously expensive, there are deals to be had. The used textbook game has a lot of players, which means you can usually find your books on the cheap if you start searching the internet as soon as you know which books are required.

A Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 9th Edition ($66/new, $ 34/used, $23/rent)

Anatomy and Physiology

Nursing, Healthcare Studies

Campbell Biology, 11th Edition ($220/new, $121/used, $14/rent)

Biology

Healthcare Studies

Diagnostic Radiology ($351/new, $130/used)

Introduction to Radiology

Healthcare Studies, Radiology

Political Science: An Introduction, 13th Edition ($110/new, $15/used, $11/rent)

Introduction to Political Science

History, Government, American Studies

The Essence of Anthropology ($60/new, $38/used, $23/rent)

Introduction to Anthropology

Cultural Studies, Folklore, Ethnography

Learning Tools

  • Grammarly ($12/month for annual subscription)
    Applicable for any classes with a writing component

  • AP Stylebook ($27)
    The 55th print edition includes the latest additions for standards to mass communication and article writing. This learning tool is useful for many classes you’ll take and serves as a basic reference for writing in a variety of subjects.

  • Aquifer ($75/course)
    This company offers a wide variety of online resources and courses for students across healthcare fields. The site can provide good supplemental resources for your studies and research.

Three Ways to Reduce Your Online Degree Cost

Now that you have an idea about how much online programs may cost you, it’s time to consider a few of the places where you can locate funding to help you pay for school. In this section, we take a look at scholarships, grants, and financial aid options that can play an essential role in your progress through an online program and help you drive down costs.

Scholarships & Grants

Just because you are an online student doesn’t mean that you are ineligible for traditional scholarships and grants. On the contrary, many online learners have received substantial funding through these Avenues. You need to fill out a FAFSA for consideration for federal funding. Additionally, some colleges and universities use FAFSA information to determine your eligibility for internal funding as well. For those of you in pursuing an education in a healthcare field, check out our list of 50 scholarships.

  • Grant and scholarship money does not need to be repaid under normal circumstances. One exception would be if you decided to quit school early and do not finish your degree. In that case, you may have to return some of the money. With this in mind, you should apply to as many scholarships as possible, provided you meet the eligibility criteria.

  • If you’re an online learner who is living at home and not on-campus is that you’ll be able to use the majority of your scholarship and grant money toward tuition costs and spend less on housing.

  • Also, colleges and universities often reserve award money for out-of-state learners. The pool of individuals applying for these scholarships and grants is often smaller than other financial awards offered through the school, and you stand a good chance of getting one as an online learner if you match the criteria.

Financial Aid

The same financial aid that is available to campus students is also available to those attending the school online. Again, to be eligible to receive any federal financial aid, you must fill out the FAFSA. Even if you don’t think they’ll qualify, you should still fill it out. Simply put, there are some scholarships and most state grants require the FAFSA and anyone, regardless of their financial situation, should not pass up “free money” for their education. We offer a guide here that will help you learn what you need to know about financial aid.