Guide to the Cheapest Private and Public Online Colleges for 2023

Guide to the Cheapest Private and Public Online Colleges for 2023
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

While it’s true that a good college education will cost money, that investment should not come at the expense of the student’s financial stability. However, many students from low- and middle-income families are forced to rely on student loans to finance their education. Students leave school owing an average of $29,000, which may take a decade or more to repay.

The cost of financing a higher education has increased dramatically during the last decade. In tandem, the cost of living and other expenses like higher education rise every year. Students are looking for less expensive university education alternatives, especially in light of the potential for a global pandemic to further exacerbate their financial predicament.

The current state of public health has led academic institutions to transition to offering online degrees, which typically cost less than attending on-campus programs. But depending on the type of college or university, the degree level, and the program, the cost of online education can still fall on the exorbitant side. In this article, we will share with you some of the necessary information on the cheapest online colleges available to help you in your selection process.

Cheapest Online Colleges Table of Contents

  1. Is an online college as good as a traditional college?
  2. What to Expect from an Online College
  3. Most Affordable Online Colleges
  4. Factors That Affect the Cost of Online Colleges
  5. How do I get into an online college?

Is an online college as good as a traditional college?

Online learning has been subjected to a lot of skepticism due to the questions about its effectiveness as a form of distance education. But with the rapid developments in technology, online learning has evolved to become a credible format of postsecondary education, from online coding classes to four-year degree programs. In a study called “The Effectiveness of Online Learning: Beyond No Significant Difference and Future Horizons,” published in MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, author Tuan Nguyen states: “There are a large number of studies that find positive statistically significant effects for student learning outcomes in the online or hybrid format compared to the traditional face-to-face format. Some of the positive learning outcomes are improved learning as measured by test scores, student engagement with the class material, improved perception of learning and of the online format, a stronger sense of community among students, and reduction in withdrawal failure.”

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak forced colleges and universities to transition to the online setup, online programs have been offered by two-year and four-year institutions across the United States. According to a survey by the National Center of Education Statistics, 62% of postsecondary institutions offer online undergraduate courses. Meanwhile, 52% offer graduate or first-professional degrees.

Among these, public two-year and four-year institutions have the highest percentage of colleges and universities that have online courses—96% and 86%, respectively (N.C.E.S., 2008). On the other hand, only 48% of private nonprofit and 52% of private for-profit institutions had online courses offered. By the time of the pandemic, the majority of colleges and universities, regardless of institutional type, have options for online classes for all degree levels. The quality of online education has always been the main point of comparison against the traditional format. While face-to-face class is often perceived to be more effective, it appears that students, especially those who are and have already gone to college, have a different preference.

A study by Wiley Education Services looks into the perspective of college students who have experienced both face-to-face and online formats of learning. According to the report, 41% agreed that they had a better experience learning online. Furthermore, 38% responded that they did not find any difference in their learning experience in either online or traditional format. Meanwhile, only 15% of respondents stated that their experience with face-to-face classes was still much better. Moreover, the majority of respondents who have already completed their degrees agreed that their online education was worth the cost.

Source: Wiley Education Services, 2020

What to Expect from an Online College

One of the most challenging parts of taking online degree courses is adjusting to this type of format. For students who have not yet experienced attending online classes, part of the preparation is setting their expectations by knowing the differences between online and traditional colleges, and the technology they need to attend and complete online degree programs. Below are some of the things a student can expect from an online college.

1. Hardware requirements

The online class uses software applications that may not be compatible with older computers or low-end systems. Some academic institutions have their tech requirements listed on their website to help their students get the right device, software applications, and other peripherals needed for an online class. It is also important to have a backup device, such as a smartphone or a tablet. According to a study, 40% of undergraduate students use their handheld devices to access and complete course-related activities (Magdana et al., 2020, p. 33). Additionally, some programs may require minimum specifications for your machines. For instance, online data science programs may require computer specifications that can handle relevant programs or projects.

2. Using L.M.S. 

Learning management systems, or LMS are tools used in distance learning in both academic and professional settings. These are software applications that help colleges, professors, and students get into the different aspects of the online learning process, from managing and distributing course materials and assignments, documenting attendance and class participation to conducting exams, and recording grades among others. Different online colleges use different LMS applications; furthermore, there are times when professors are free to choose the LMS software they prefer, so make sure to confirm which application you need to familiarize yourself with and have on your computer.

3. Online interaction

Unless you are enrolled in a hybrid program where you have the opportunity to interact with your classmates and professor face to face, all forms of interaction will be done virtually. Fortunately, there is a broad range of communication tools with features that fit an online class setup. The type of application used, however, typically depends on what the institution requires or what the instructor prefers to use.

learning activities that college students use mobile devices for

Most Affordable Online Colleges

A recent study reveals that cost is the main factor students consider when choosing an online postsecondary institution. Affordability, however, is not the only factor that should influence your decision. When it comes to choosing a low-cost online college, the reputation of the institution must also be taken into consideration. After all, a school’s reputation is relevant to the quality of education it offers, as well as how your online degree will be viewed by future employers.

To help you find the cheapest online colleges that may suit your college plans and budget, below is a list of accredited universities that charge low-cost tuition fees.

Average Yearly Salary for Art History Careers

(0-12 months)
Early Career
(1-4 years)
(5-9 years)
(10-19 years)
Art Teacher$38,810$41,000$45,610$51,240
Postsecondary Professor$60,250$60,550$69,830$86,780
Museum CuratorN/A$42,830$50,480$60,000
Art Gallery CuratorN/A$43.380$49,480$50,180
Source: Best Colleges, 2021

Factors That Affect the Cost of Online Colleges

The staggering cost of postsecondary education has pushed students to look for more affordable options. According to EducationData, the average cost of college education in the United States has tripled in the last 20 years and is projected to continuously grow annually at 6.8%. It has now reached the point where a bachelor’s degree can cost a student more than $400,000, including loss of income and student loan interest (Hanson, 2021).

One big advantage online colleges have over their brick-and-mortar counterparts is that attending online programs generally costs less. For one, students no longer have to spend any money on transportation just to attend classes and pay for campus fees unless they are enrolled in a hybrid program. Online colleges, however, have their own price structure for the cost of their online programs. And while the pricing varies across colleges, below are some of the factors that may affect the total cost of online college programs.

1. Type of institution

Public academic institutions offer more affordable online programs in general. As for private online colleges, private nonprofits offer cheaper online programs as they are generally funded not only by the government but also by donations from various organizations. Private nonprofit institutions also utilize students’ tuition fees to cover operational costs, which is why their tuition is higher than public colleges but lower than private for-profit, which is typically owned by a corporation or private organizations.

2. Student’s residency

The difference in the cost of tuition for in-state and out-of-state students still applies to online programs. But in case the college you chose to enroll in is outside of the state you reside in, you no longer have to spend money on moving and finding a new place to live unless the program requires you to attend on-campus activities.

3. Technology fees

Online colleges may charge you for utilizing proprietary information technology resources that may be used in delivering online classes. These resources include online library fees as well as access fees to data repositories for remote students. Furthermore, courses may require you to install specific applications to complete assignments or projects. For example, an online associate degree program in computer science may include courses that will have you apply concepts through proprietary platforms provided by the institution. U.S. annual average cost of college per student

How do I get into an online college?

Another major advantage of attending an online college is the convenience it offers not only in terms of attending classes but also in getting into one. Unlike enrolling in traditional campus programs, most, if not all of the requirements in online colleges are submitted online. For example, students pursuing a music degree can submit or do their audition pieces virtually instead of going to the campus.

Admission requirements vary depending on the program, degree level, and other college-specific requirements. Below are some of the requirements you may have to prepare to get into an online college according to degree level.

Undergraduate degrees

  • Completed application form
  • High school diploma or G.E.D. certificate
  • Transcript
  • At least 2.0 G.P.A. (Some institutions may require at least 3.0 for their competitive programs.)
  • A.C.T. or S.A.T. scores

Graduate degrees

  • Proof of undergraduate degree
  • Professional resume
  • Personal statement
  • Recommendation letters
  • Language proficiency test
  • Graduate Record Examinations (G.R.E.)

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Reshaping the Academic Environment Through Online Education

Despite the skepticism directed at the online format of education, the number of academic institutions offering the best online degrees has grown significantly over the last 10 years. According to an Inside Higher Ed article by Christopher Haynes, it is now time to turn the stigma surrounding online learning. According to Haynes, the criticisms about the effectiveness of online learning are “rooted in the fear of disruption.” But with the unprecedented events in 2020 that halted all on-campus classes, online education has instead proven just the opposite as it plays the key role in the continuity of education in the midst of a deadly pandemic.



  1. Accredited Schools Online. (2021, April 23). How online college can cost less than a campus program. Accredited Schools Online. Retrieved August 10, 2021.
  2. Champlain College. (2019, November 22). The cost of online education vs. traditional education. Champlain College Online. Retrieved August 11, 2021.
  3. CollegeData. (2020). How much does college cost? Retrieved August 10, 2021.
  4. Duffin, E. (2020, June 17). Leading fields of study for online college students in the U.S. in 2020, by level of education. Statista. Retrieved August 9, 2021.
  5. Duffin, E. (2020, June 17). U.S. students’ reasons for online college selection 2020. Statista. Retrieved August 9, 2021.
  6. Hanson, M. (2021, May 14). Average cost of college [2021]: Yearly tuition + expenses. EducationData. Retrieved August 12, 2021.
  7. Haynes, C. (2017, May 24). Breaking stigma of online education. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved August 10, 2021.
  8. Magdana, A. J., Capranos, D., & Aslanian, C. B. (2020, June). Online college students 2020: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Wiley Education Services.
  9. McCarthy, M. (2021, May 21). List of accredited online colleges & universities. OnlineU. Retrieved August 9, 2021.
  10. N.C.E.S. (2008, December 30). Distance education at degree-granting postsecondary institutions: 2006-07. National Center for Education Statistics.
  11. Nguyen, T. (2015). “The effectiveness of online learning: Beyond no significant difference and future horizons.” MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 11(2).
  12. Statista. (2020). The student debt crisis in the U.S. Statista. Retrieved August 10, 2021.

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