The COVID-19 pandemic has shed new light on the value of online degree programs. Specifically, the global health crisis accelerated the trend toward distance learning. While traditional colleges struggled, institutions that adopted online learning early on easily shifted to online learning trends.
In fall 2018, there were 6,932,074 students enrolled in distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. From 2012 to 2018, the number of students that took at least one coursework online doubled, accoridng to a 2019 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. The sector that posted the fastest growth of online students, at approximately 20%, was public four-year colleges. Institutions offering online programs climbed from 77 to 160 schools.
The growing interest in online degree programs among students plus the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic to the world’s biggest economies has prompted students to hunt for the most affordable online colleges. Using the top three most important factors— affordability, reputation, and time to completion—this article will provide a list of the top ten most affordable online colleges, as well as a brief guide to in-person and online degree programs.
In the U.S., there has been a steady decline in college enrollment from 20.6 million in 2011 to 19 million in 2016 (Hildreth, 2017). Distrust in the incremental value of higher education, high tuition fees, the possibility of incurring long-term debt, and other socioeconomic concerns caused enrollment to fall at dramatic rates.
Commuting costs and student travel time are also major concerns, thus Hoover (2017) suggested that implementing online and blended courses could help students working full time and accelerate college completion rates. In the spring of 2021, new undergraduate enrollment dropped by 4.5%. The previous year, freshmen enrollment fell by 13.1%. Data from National Student Clearinghouse recorded an overall dip in postsecondary enrollment of 2.5% in 2020.
A recent study by Wiley Education Services also found that 51% of students cite affordability as a major determinant in choosing online programs (Magda et. al 2020). Reputation came in second, with 36% of students agreeing that it is an important consideration as they want to be associated with an institution that would have a positive impact on future job prospects. The third most important factor in choosing an online program, to which 28% of students concurred, is time to completion, which includes the ability to easily apply transfer credits towards a degree program.
The most serious public health crisis of the century brought unprecedented and widespread impact on the education sector by accelerating the shift to remote learning. More than 1,300 colleges and universities in all 50 states in the United States were forced to close in the spring of 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19. While the shift to online learning seemed to have been brought about by the pandemic, colleges and universities have been offering online learning even before this disruption took place.
Worldwide, online education in its various modes has been growing steadily. The global adoption of the Internet, the confluence of new technologies, including the consistently increasing demand for a workforce that is ready to adapt to the ever-evolving digital economy, all contributed to the widespread adoption of online education. Research even predicted in 2018 that online education will become mainstream by 2025, however, COVID-19 fast-tracked the adoption.
The high growth of adoption of education technology has been recorded even before the pandemic. Global education technology investments reached $18.66 billion in 2019, and by the year 2025, the global market for online education is projected to reach $350 billion (Markets Insider, 2020). These unprecedented investments in education technology significantly helped in laying the groundwork for online learning to thrive during the pandemic.
Dziuban, Picciano, Graham, and Moskal (2016) describe the evolution of online education in the U.S. in four phases: 1990s (Internet propelled distance education), 2000-2007 (increasing use of Learning Management Systems – LMS), 2008-2012 (growth of Massive Open Online Courses – MOOCs). The advanced state of technology made online education easier to implement and more feasible in economic, technological, and operational aspects.
In 2016, over six million students in the U.S. enrolled in at least one online course (Lederman, 2018). Notwithstanding an expanding or shrinking economy or even the decreasing overall college enrollment, online enrollments increased for 14 consecutive years (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018). Online education has long been an integral part of colleges and universities. The National Center for Education Statistics began separating enrollment data between online and on-campus in 2012. Over the course of six years, from 2012 to 2017, online enrollment in both undergraduate and graduate degrees climbed by 42.59%, which is roughly equivalent to one million students. In comparison, total enrollment in both online and on-campus posted 0.74% during the same period (Online Schools Report, 2020).
Online college education has been considered a popular alternative as college tuition rates surged, leading to increasing student debts. Online education offered a more affordable option to students that are primarily hesitant to pursue postsecondary education due to its ever-growing price tag.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics (2018)
Online education is attracting a growing number of students due to its accessibility, flexibility, inclusivity, and more importantly, affordability. Employers are embracing online education. In the U.S., online colleges are classified as nationally accredited and regionally accredited. Harvard University, Ohio University, and Stanford University are some examples of regionally accredited institutions.
A regionally accredited school is highly esteemed by employers because this means that the school’s online offerings have passed the rigorous and comprehensive review of the regional accreditation boards. In the U.S., there are six regional accreditation boards that oversee and accredit degree-granting institutions:
These regional accreditation boards are recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education. Enrolling in a regionally accredited school also automatically gives the student a smooth transfer of credit units from one institution to another regionally accredited university.
Based on a 2018 leadership training statistics, 61% of HR leaders perceive online education as having equal and even greater quality than the more traditional methods (Gallagher, 2018). This may be attributed to the fact that employers equate the capability of the individual to have self-regulation, which is very much present in online learning as an important skill. The environment of online learning that promotes self-regulation is directly associated with positive academic achievement (Wander and Imbriale, 2017).
In fact, among the organizations interviewed for the study, 71% reported that they hired an applicant with a degree earned online in the last 12 months. In the future, 51% of the respondents believe that most degrees, even the advanced programs, will be completed online. Finally, 33% are confident that with the unprecedented growth of educational technology, online education will ultimately surpass the quality of on-campus and other traditional forms of education.
Data gathered by the U.S. News and World Report show that the cost of an online bachelor’s degree ranges from $38,496 to $60,593 with an average of $334 per credit (Kerr, 2020). For in-state students, public online bachelor’s degree average is at $38,496, while for out-of-state, the average tuition is $54,183. Institutions usually charge higher rates for out-of-state students, but there are also colleges that charge the same rate per credit for both in-state and out-of-state students. For private colleges, the average tuition is $60,593.
There are often additional costs associated with on-campus learning as compared to online. Getting a degree online eliminates room and board fees, which is the next most expensive part of college life second to tuition fees. Considering how expensive it is living off-campus, transportation costs could also be significantly reduced. As such, if one computes the per credit hour cost, it is less expensive if courses are taken online.
The search for the most affordable online bachelor’s degree program has never been more relevant, especially now that the pandemic has affected the family income. If you try to search the Internet for cheap online degrees, the results would definitely provide you with unlimited options. But how would you know the quality, and even the legitimacy, of these cheap online degrees?
For online students, affordability, reputation, and time for completion are the three most important factors that matter in choosing an online degree program. In addition, the online college should also provide flexibility and convenience, student support, online resources, and career services. The following list of the top ten most affordable online colleges used these criteria. For students that want to find out what is the cheapest online degree, this list will be useful in identifying the most affordable bachelor’s degree programs as offered by the most affordable online colleges.
St. Petersburg College began as an educational institution in 1927 as Florida’s first two-year college, St. Petersburg Junior College. SPC was the first state college in Florida to offer bachelor’s degrees. Among the hallmarks of SPC are access, excellence, and student support. SPC is a public college in Florida that is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC). SPC offers more than 180 bachelor’s degree and certificate programs of study, and many high-demand, high-skill industry-recognized workforce certifications. Online tutoring and library services, tools and apps for online learning, and online student events are among the services provided by SPC to students. SPC works with industry experts in creating a career-focused curriculum to ensure that students are equipped and ready to meet the demands of the 21st-century workplace.
Ranked as one of the most affordable colleges in the United States, the University of Florida (UF) is a consistent producer of Fullbright Scholars. UF is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Since 2014, UF Online has offered fully online degree programs at affordable costs. Teaching, research, scholarship, and service are the four pillars of UF’s mission. To date, UF has more than 11,000 active projects. The university has also launched a total of 13 startups. UF students can access a portal that serves as a central point for accessing self-service functionality. In addition, the institution also has its UF Computing Help Desk, available 24/7, and is ready to assist students in accessing the UF Libraries, e-learning platform, the UF apps, and other online resources.
Founded in 1887 as Croatan Normal School, the University of North Carolina- Pembroke (UNCP) is the only four-year public institution in the U.S. that is founded by American Indians for American Indians. UNCP has an Inclusion and Diversity Council to promote the importance of inclusion and diversity among its students. UNCP is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It is a member of the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA), a voluntary regional approach to state oversight in postsecondary distance education. NC Promise, an initiative of UNCP to extend access to affordable education, is a program that offers $500 per semester total tuition to qualified students. UNCP has a central online resource for online applications. Upon admission, all student services can be accessed through this account, including academic advising and engagement, library services, and tutoring services.
Founded in 1963, the University of Central Florida (UCF) is ranked among the top 20 most innovative colleges in the U.S. by the U.S. News and World Report. UCF is also recognized by Forbes, Kiplinger, and The Princeton Review as one of the best-value universities. A research leader in numerous fields, UCF has 13 colleges offering more than 230 degree programs. BUCF is known as a leader in academic, partnership, and research fields. Among these are in the fields of engineering and computer science, optics and lasers, video game design, modeling and simulation, business, public administration, education, hospitality management, and healthcare. UCF Online Connect Center is staffed by a group of dedicated coaches who personally support students in accessing the necessary resources and services to successfully navigate online learning.
In 1997 a group of U.S. governors founded Western Governors University (WGU). WGU is a non-profit, fully online institution with presence in eight U.S. states and is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). The low-cost online programs offered by WGU rely on competency-based progression, which makes it possible for a student to finish a degree in just 30 months or 2.5 years. WGU’s innovative learning model, founded on principles of competency-based education, has revolutionized the way students learn. WGU offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business, information technology, K-12 teacher education, and health professions, including nursing. WGU offers unique assistance to students through individualized faculty support and instruction. Each student regularly interacts with three faculty members – a program mentor, a course instructor, and an evaluator – by phone or by web. The goal is to keep the student on track and succeed in the chosen degree program.
American Public University (APU) started as American Military University (AMU) in 1991. In 2002, AMU became part of the American Public University System and at the same time established APU to meet the educational needs of those outside the military. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), degrees and credits earned through APUS are recognized within the military, the federal government, and the private sector. APU is one of the largest providers of online higher education catering to students enrolled from around the world and is a recipient of numerous awards, including Excellence in Academic Advising, and the Online Learning Consortium Effective Practice Award. Student services at APUS, including mentoring, academic advising, classroom support, admission, registration, and more can be accessed through dedicated websites.
Established in 2013, Indian River State College Global (IRSC Global) has more than 20 years of experience in facilitating remote learning with the use of instructional technology. Part of the Indian River State College, IRSC Global degree programs are nationally certified. IRSC Global is ranked number one by the Aspen Institute for student learning, degree and certificate completion, high rates of graduate employment, earnings for graduates, and exceptional access and success for minority and low-income students. IRSC Global is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and is distinguished for instructional innovation, and program quality, and affordability. IRSC Global has 173 Quality Matters-certified faculty and staff. Student Support Services at IRSC include academic advising, personal and academic counseling, tutoring, transfer assistance, career services, and other personal enrichment activities. River Support Online offers online tools for students in building a personal success roadmap.
Cal State Online is part of the California State University (CSU) System, with 23 campuses throughout California offering online instruction to over 480,000 students. By leveraging its 53,000-strong faculty and staff, Cal State Online aims to remove ‘time and place’ obstacles. Cal State Online consistently earns high marks for academic excellence, sustainability, value, and social mobility. All 23 campuses of CSU, including Cal State Online are accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC). Students at Cal State Online are provided with an online coach, and students are also granted the same benefits as those taking courses on-campus. CSU is a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, Minority-Serving Institution, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution.
Established in 1851, Columbia College is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Columbia College is a private, non-profit liberal arts and sciences college. Since 2000, Columbia College has been offering online education, making it one of the first universities to offer online programs in the U.S. Columbia College offers fixed-rate tuition, which means that the rate is locked for five consecutive years. Columbia College’s exclusively online nursing degree is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and is included in the Top 25 most affordable online RN to BSN nursing programs. Among the student services provided are advising and tutoring, career planning, wellness and health counseling, testing services, online resources, IT support, and veteran services.
Alabama’s oldest public university, the University of Alabama (UA) is a senior-comprehensive doctoral-level institution. UA boasts of having the most number of faculty, 36 in all, to have received National Science Foundation (NSF) Career Awards, the nation’s most prestigious recognition of top-performing young scientists. Among public universities in the U.S., UA has sustained its leadership as having the highest number of National Merit Scholars enrolled in the university, with a total of 800 as of 2020. UA has also been awarded the R1 category in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The distinctive R1 Category is awarded to universities with very high research activity. UA provides students with Success Coaching, tutoring through its program the Capstone Center for Student Success, library services, and other support services, such as the writing center and career center.
Education need not be expensive. This list of the top 10 most affordable online colleges shows that quality education has become more accessible through the years. The great reset towards digital learning opened opportunities to students that will forever change the education landscape.
Even before the pandemic, the declining enrollment in postsecondary schools was already a major concern. This downturn can be attributed to the pressures faced by higher education institutions, which include decreased funding as states now have more competing interests. From 1990, higher education’s share of the general fund started to decline at 15%, and in 2014 higher education accounted for approximately 9% of state spending, which is about half as much as health program spending. Aside from shrinking state funding, the decline in the number of international students and the eroding trust in colleges shifted the value of a college degree.
It is within this bleak scenario that Gallagher and Palmer (2020) wrote, with a sigh of relief, that this change in the way students learn is long overdue. The pandemic may have forced universities to abandon traditional methods of instruction, but it has undoubtedly elevated the standard of student services and support.
If you have been waiting for the opportunity to earn a college degree or continue with your postsecondary studies, now is the right time. The increasing number of online college degree offerings signals that there is an ongoing competition and the student, as the customer, stands to benefit. Online colleges also offer associate degrees if you are not yet ready for a bachelor’s degree. While college degrees used to have a high price tag, the sector has reached an inflection. The value of education is slowly being redefined. As the top ten list of the most affordable online colleges illuminates, low tuition costs can deliver high-value education.