20 Most Affordable Online Doctorate Programs in 2021

20 Most Affordable Online Doctorate Programs in 2021
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

There are several good reasons for pursuing a doctorate degree. Doctorate programs provide students not only with advanced training in their respective fields but also better career opportunities. Earning a doctorate can be a gateway for many to find jobs with higher responsibilities and higher compensation.

Traditional brick-and-mortar programs can cost a lot. They also seem untenable, especially for people who are working full-time. Thus, many opt to take online versions of these programs or enroll in distance-learning-only institutions. But how much does an online doctorate degree cost? The answer is that while online programs generally cost much less than their on-campus counterparts, the most affordable online doctorate programs are offered by distance-learning-only institutions. Even though these programs are offered online, you might just be surprised by the range of program categories available.

The list even includes programs for health and legal professions, along with the more common management-related doctorates. Of course, research-based programs are also available. In this article, we will not only provide you with this list but also briefly tackle what a doctorate degree is, the different kinds, and some benefits of having a doctorate degree. In this way, you can better plan for your personal career goals.

What is a doctorate program?

A doctorate program is a graduate-level education program that trains and prepares students to make original contributions to their fields. There are two main types of doctorate programs: research doctorates and professional doctorates. As their names suggest, they are for different purposes. Put simply, one is an academic degree that stresses original theoretical and/or empirical research. The other is focused on the application of research knowledge to practical problems in particular fields (Walden University, 2017). They make up two of the three main kinds of doctorate degrees conferred by institutions.

Research Doctorates

Most of the time, however, when people refer to a doctorate program, they refer to academic or research doctorates. Research doctorate programs are designed for people to have an in-depth knowledge of their field and to make original research contributions. Doctorate students are expected to build their skills in the following (Walden University, 2017):

  • Analyzing existing theories and concepts in their areas of discipline further.
  • Evaluating and verifying the relevance of emerging trends and theories in their fields.
  • Identifying gaps in the existing research literature.
  • Contributing new knowledge through original research.
  • Reaching out and communicating to academic stakeholders and audience more effectively.

A doctorate program generally involves advanced coursework, seminars, supervised research, and the defense of original publication-worthy research. Moreover, the time to finish a doctorate degree program depends on the subject of research, research difficulty, and institutional requirements. The ideal time of completion is four to eight years. A doctorate degree is awarded to students in recognition of having completed a research work that is publishable in a peer-reviewed academic journal. This is, of course, a defended thesis or dissertation.

Typically, a doctorate degree is a terminal degree in a certain field. Meaning, it is the highest degree that can be conferred to an individual in a discipline.

The most popular research doctorate degree is Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). There are also other research doctorate degree titles. How they come about depends on the research field, the doctorate program, and the institution. In the United States, other popular research doctorate degrees include:

  • Doctor of Business (D.B.A.)
  • Doctor of Science (D.sc. / Sc.D.)
  • Doctor of Social Science (D.Soc.Sci.)
  • Doctor of Engineering (Eng.D. / Ph.D. Eng.)
  • Doctor of Education (D.Ed. / Ed.D.)

Professional Doctorates

Professional doctorate programs are best understood as applied professional programs. They were known in the United States as first-professional degrees as they prepare students to work in a specific profession. Also, in certain occupations like physicians and lawyers, people with professional degrees need to pass licensure exams in order to start their practice.

Even though they are professional degrees, professional doctorate programs also require students to perform advanced original research work in addition to coursework loads. Moreover, there are programs in certain disciplines that also award professional degrees to students after completing an original project of practical or artistic value. Professional doctorate programs train students to (Walden University, 2017):

  • Evaluate the relevance of current and emerging theories and practices within their field.
  • Formulate effective solutions to complex, real-world problems common to their field.
  • Apply current research to practical problems in their field.
  • Design rigorous research that expands the professional body of knowledge in their field.

The most popularly known professional doctorates are Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.D.). Other professional doctorates include:

  • Doctor of Management (D.M. / D.Mgt.)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.)
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.)
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.)

Other Doctorates

Other than research and professional doctorates, institutions also award honorary doctorates. These are generally awarded to honor the achievements of an individual in a field or society who has no prior post-secondary education or prior connection to the awarding institution. One could also get awarded an honorary degree through philanthropic efforts (or donations to these institutions).

They are given honoris causa, which means ‘for the sake of honor.’ Honorary degree titles usually contain an abbreviation of honoris causa as a suffix. An honorary degree title would look like Doctor of Arts (Hon. Causa).

As implied, an honorary degree is conferred without the awardee having to go through the usual academic and training requirements. Thus, it is not an academic or professional doctorate and should not be on the education’s part of a person’s curriculum vitae (CV).

top 3 doctoral degree programs

Why get a doctorate (Ph.D.)?

There are many reasons to enroll in a doctorate program. However, there are two main reasons: (a) have an advanced research career, and (b) have an advanced professional career. These, of course, can overlap. Also, they usually come hand-in-hand.

Build Expertise and Contribute

If you are very passionate about learning about and contributing to your field, then a doctorate program is something that you should look into. Enrolling in one will provide you with time and training to build expertise in particular subject matters. Earning a doctorate can be thought of as building a deeper specialization. This specialization will then be your springboard to make original contributions. A doctorate degree is also used as a signal that someone is an authority in their particular area of expertise.

As such, you can use this to collaborate with other experts and tackle research or professional problems. Of course, there are individuals who can do great collaborative things for their fields without having to earn a doctorate, like the famous physicist Freeman Dyson, but enrolling in one can help you gain mentors and collaborators. This is more so when earning a professional doctorate degree.

A doctorate program could also help you build a good network of like-minded researchers and professionals pursuing more or less the same research or professional interests. Thus, you can have a good professional support system for your work and career.

More Career Options and Better Earning Potential

Financial stability is one of the many reasons for enrolling in a doctorate program. Completing your doctorate will open more career opportunities. This is in terms of better job positions and higher salaries. Among all workers, those who have doctorates earn the most.

The average annual wage of people with professional doctorates in the United States in 2019 is $152,703 per year (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020). This statistic includes the annual wage of people with professional degrees, such as medical doctors (M.D.) and lawers (J.D.).

They are followed by people with academic doctorate degrees with an average annual salary of $140,337. These include those with Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and other kinds of research doctorates like Doctor of Business Administration and Doctor of Science.

The average annual wages of people with doctorates are significantly higher than people who have a master’s degree ($93,092), a bachelor’s degree ($73,163), and an associate degree ($48,687).

Thus, having great pay can be a strong motivating factor. This, among other reasons, has influenced the slow but steady rise of people with doctorate degrees (academic and professional).

A study by Posselt and Grodsky (2017), “Graduate education and social stratification,” published in the Annual Review of Sociology, found that the number of degree holders is at a slow but steady rise. They note that “the share of Americans aged 40–55 with graduate credentials has changed only modestly over the past decade (steady at 1.5% for Ph.D. or professional degrees and inching up to just over 8% for master’s degrees).”

This is why a total of 187,570 people in the country have doctorates. The majority, at 54.27%, are females with around 101,800 doctorate degree holders (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). The male share is 45.73% with about 88,770. The most popular ones in 2019—based on the number of awarded degrees—are those related to health (82,895) and legal professions (34,387) (NCES, 2020).

At the  Top (1%): Social Mobility, Influence, and Resilience

People with graduate degrees have greater social mobility. This means not only in terms of money but also influence (for better or worse). Between 1989 and 2010, the share of people with graduate degrees in the top 5% of earners rose from 30% to around 40% (Posselt and Grodksy, 2017). In the 99th percentile or the top 1%, people with doctoral or professional degrees hold the majority share.

Citing works of Thompson (2013) and Keister (2014), Posselt and Grodksy (2017) reported that people with “a professional or doctoral degree are mostly responsible for driving this trend (Thompson 2013), and their share of the top 1% of the income distribution is greater still at 62% (Keister 2014).” They added that “people who hold graduate and professional degrees are increasingly overrepresented among the wealthiest Americans.”

Moreover, Keister (2014), in his article “The one percent” published in the Annual Review of Sociology, commented about the resilience of those in the one percent against economic downturns. This is very useful to have. She stated that although the top 1% are not completely immune to the negative effects of business cycles, their ability “to both weather the financial storm and recover from it is also clear, suggesting that there is a good deal of truth to claims that they are very insulated.” This covers not only financial security but also social influence.

This, of course, contributes to the dreaded wage and power disparity in society today. But if you are out for plain social equality, outright social interest, or a mix of both, an ample amount of influence can go a long way. And, whether we want to admit it or not, social mobility, influence, and resilience are requisite if you want to have a say in society.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2020

Cost of Doctorate Programs: Traditional vs. Online

What is the cheapest online doctorate program? A good rule of thumb is that traditional programs cost more than online ones. Generally, however, the cost of enrollment in higher education has been rising. Since 2012, the cost of enrollment in private institutions rose by 35.39%. This is from $23,943 to $32,417 in AY 2019-2020. On the other hand, the average annual fees for public institutions increased by 25.63% from $5,899 to $7,411 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). This includes both undergraduate and graduate programs.

For graduate programs, the latest available report shows that in AY 2016-2017, the average graduate tuition and fees reached $18,416 (NCES, 2021). The figure is $11,617 for public institutions and $24,712 for private institutions. Also, the statistic includes both professional practice degrees and research doctorate degrees. Note that the cost of enrollment also depends on which type of doctorate degree you are trying to earn.

Professional degrees tend to cost higher. The latest historical data from the National Center of Education Statistics (2021) showed that in AY 2008-2009, the average full-time graduate cost of enrollment is $13,647. Professional doctorates from veterinary medicine ($18,223) and optometry ($22,125) to medicine ($29,890) to dentistry ($37,543) cost significantly higher.

These also do not include expenses for accommodations, travel, and other in-person needs and requirements.

This is why many opt for online programs as these, in general, are more cost-effective. This is for two reasons. Firstly, they are offered at a smaller rate because they use fewer school resources. Secondly, the cost to attend is significantly lesser because there is little to zero amount of face-to-face requirements.

But, many times, the tuition and fees between the online versions and their on-campus counterparts may not be too far apart. One concrete case of this, from the data collected by Baum and Steele (2017), is the University of Miami, where an in-person graduate program costs $46,616 and its online version is $45,093. That is only a $1,523 diference. Of course, again, attending in-person classes entails more expenses. But if you really want to save, you can opt for the most affordable online doctorate programs offered by distance-learning-only institutions.

professional doctorate degrees vs research degree average tuition

Most Affordable Online Doctorate Programs

The table below shows the institutions offering the most affordable online doctorate programs. We have not only included the estimated tuition and fees that we checked by hand, but also their program categories for doctorate degrees. You will see that there are many program categories to choose from, ranging from health professions and related programs to education and law.

Most Affordable Online Schools for Doctorate Programs

InstitutionTuitionFeesTotalProgram Categories Available
Shiloh University$3,420$0$3,420
  • Theology and Religious Vocations
  • Columbia Southern University$3,900$135$4,035
  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services
  • Abraham Lincoln University$4,800$200$5,000
  • Legal Professions and Studies

  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services
  • Taft University System$5,400$190$5,590
  • Education

  • Legal Professions and Studies
  • American College of Education$5,640$960$6,600
  • Education
  • Arizona State University Digital Immersion$6,516$208$6,724
  • Education

  • Psychology
  • American Sentinel University$6,720$200$6,920
  • Health Professions and Related Programs
  • Huntington University of Health Sciences$7,200$250$7,450
  • Health Professions and Related Programs
  • Institute of Lutheran Theology$7,506$330$7,836
  • Theology and Religious Vocations
  • Walden University$10,272$444$10,716
  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services

  • Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services

  • Education

  • Health Professions and Related Programs

  • Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting and Related
  • Protective Services

  • Psychology

  • Public Administration and Social Service Professions
  • American InterContinental University$12,321$525$12,846
  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services
  • California Intercontinental University$11,880$1,085$12,965
  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services

  • Health Professions and Related Programs
  • Amridge University$11,700$1,300$13,000
  • Health Professions and Related Programs

  • Theology and Religious Vocations

  • Johnson & Wales University-Online$14,148$0$14,148
  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services
  • South University-Savannah Online$13,800$720$14,520
  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services

  • Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services

  • Health Professions and Related Programs

  • Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting and Related Protective Services

  • Public Administration and Social Service Professions

  • Theology and Religious Vocations
  • Ashford University$13,720$944$14,664
  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services

  • Education

  • Psychology

  • Public Administration and Social Service Professions
  • Capella University$14,767$0$14,767
  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services

  • Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services

  • Education

  • Engineering/Engineering-related Technologies/Technicians

  • Family and Consumer Sciences/Human Sciences

  • Health Professions and Related Programs

  • Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting and Related Protective Services
  • Psychology

  • Public Administration and Social Service Professions

  • Social Sciences
    National American University-Rapid City$15,000$75$15,075
  • Education

  • Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting and Related Protective Services
  • Northcentral University$16,983$1,112$18,095
  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services

  • Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services

  • Education

  • Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting and Related Protective Services

  • Psychology
  • Frontier Nursing University$18,617$1,675$20,292
  • Health Professions and Related Programs
  •  

    On the Quality of Online Degrees

    Based on the most recent online education statistics, online degrees and education are getting more accepted across different industries. The greatest contributor to this development is the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the hand of institutions to offer online programs. Of course, not all online programs are created equally.

    In terms of the quality of education, it still largely depends on the expertise and experience of the faculty in both the subject areas and online educational delivery. Every program also differs in terms of the quality of supervisory guidance when it is time for capstone projects and dissertations. So, we could not really throw a blanket judgment on the general quality of online education today, especially for doctorate programs. A good rule of thumb to go by is the more reputable the department or institution, the better quality of education is to be expected.

    Moreover, if you enroll in the online version of a traditionally-offered program, you are basically getting the same quality of education as your on-campus counterpart. You get the same faculty and take coursework that is of the same level of difficulty as them.

    However, if you are planning to take your doctorate at a distance-learning-only institution, you should dig more into the quality of education at your prospective schools. Furthermore, you should check if your institution and program are accredited by a legitimate accreditation body. You can easily check online through your target school’s website and also on reliable websites, such as the Department of Education’s and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

    If we take a look at current online education trends, the use of digital technology is getting more accepted in education. As many could attest, its business counterpart, distance-only work, works. The future can only be brighter for online education. In search of what is the best online doctoral program, it is still best to be a vigilant consumer of educational services because there are dubious online programs out there. That said, you can rest assured that the institutions included above are listed by the National Center for Education Statistics. Just be careful that if you settle for the most affordable doctorate programs available, you get what you paid for.

     

    References:

    1. Keister, L. A. (2014). The one percent. Annual Review of Sociology, 40(2014), 347-367. Annual Reviews.
    2. National Center for Education Statistics. (2019, December 31). Digest of education statistics 2020. Statista.
    3. National Center for Education Statistics. (2020, July 31). U.S. higher education – number of doctoral degrees 2030. Statista.
    4. National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Average graduate tuition and required fees in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by control of institution and percentile of charges: 1989-90 through 2016-17. NCES.
    5. National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Average graduate and first-professional tuition and required fees in degree-granting institutions, by first-professional field of study and control of institution: 1989-90 through 2010-11. NCES.
    6. Posselt, J. R., & Grodsky, E. (2017). Graduate education and social stratification. Annual Review of Sociology, 43, 353-378. Annual Reviews.
    7. Thompson, J. (2013). The changing demography of wealth: Demographics by wealth and wealth by demographics in the SCF [Conference session]. Annual Meeting – Population Association of America, New Orleans, LA.
    8. U.S. Census Bureau. (2020, September 27). Mean earnings in the U.S. by educational attainment 2019. Statista.
    9. Walden University. (2017, June 9). What is the difference between a Ph.D. and a professional doctoral degree. Walden University.

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