The Truth About Cheap Online Colleges & Affordable Online Schools

Online learning is quickly becoming a popular route for students of all levels studying in nearly any field. Many students in the K-12 setting already have some type of online education integrated into their course of studies. From flipped classrooms to blended learning and hybrid teaching models, students are becoming accustomed to doing at least some of their learning online.

For students entering university, there are many all-online options which offer a variety of benefits to students, including an extremely wide selection of course offerings and great flexibility. Many students also think that getting their degree online will be the most inexpensive option for them.

But is this really the case? What is the truth about cheap online colleges? Are there really affordable online schools out there? This little article aims to shed some light on this idea. Hopefully you learn a bit about the facts behind online schools purporting to have ‘low tuition’ and market themselves as ‘cheap.’

The Big Questions We Want To Answer

To give you an idea of what to expect, here are some questions we’re going to answer:

  • Where is the tuition money being spent? Are you getting the most educational bang for your buck?
  • What’s the employment situation like after graduating from an online school? What’s up with the salaries?
  • How do online school graduates compare to their brick and mortar counterparts in terms of salaries?
  • Are these schools actually affordable? What is the deal with scholarships, financial aid tax incentives, etc.?
  • Where does Open Courseware fit into this? What about the rest of the MOOCs offering free courses? What should we expect out of MOOCs?

online learning

An Affordable Education

money fer collegeFirst things first. What exactly is an ‘affordable’ education? You probably laugh at the mere thought of those two words being mentioned together. If you’ve ever paid tuition or sent a child off to college, the last thing you’d ever say is ‘boy this tuition is cheap! I wish I could pay more!’

In fact, here’s what we mean by an affordable education. In a nutshell, the level of affordability varies from person to person. Some people think only free online education is affordable. Others can pay at least a couple thousand dollars a semester to secure their education. So, affordability is a flexible term but, in a nutshell, it means your ability to comfortably pay for education without it having an overly adverse effect on your life. In other words, should you need to take out massive student loans to enroll in a 4-year university, that will make the following decade(s) quite difficult as you’ll always have a payment hanging over your head. If that 4-year university comes out to a $150,000 total loan, you’ll end up paying a whole lot more than that once you factor in interest and the length of the loan. So is that 4-year university actually affordable? Probably not. Can you technically go as long as you’re willing to take on that huge amount of debt? Of course! That’s been the engine behind record applications and enrollments lately.

But it looks like a new alternative is finally maturing to the point that it’s viable. That’s online learning and it could mean you don’t have to take on decades of debt.

But is this newly evolved alternative worth the smaller price tag?

It depends. It depends on a few things. Let’s walk through the key things to know about affordable online schools and what you should know about them if you’re looking to apply or at least grab some information about them.


school_money2If affordability is an issue in determining where you’ll pursue your education, then tuition should be the first place you look. While many people think that getting your degree online will be cheaper, that  may or may not be the case. In many cases, a degree earned online will actually be more expensive than a degree earned from a brick and mortar school.

Many argue that if you get a degree from an online school, you’ll reap the benefit of cost savings associated with a lack of capital costs like maintaining campus buildings, and you won’t pay for things like room and board or commuting costs. But let’s put all of that aside for a minute, and look at the meat and potatoes of what you’ll be paying in any degree program – the tuition.

What comprises ‘tuition’?

Tuition is the fee you pay to actually take a class. Some colleges and universities offer this in a ‘per hour’ or ‘per unit’ amount; others have a flat price per semester for a minimum and maximum number of credits taken. If the schools you’re looking at offer a ‘per unit’ rate, they’re fairly easy to compare. If they offer a flat price per semester, you’ll need to decide how many credits you’ll be taking to calculate the rate per unit. If you take the maximum number of credits allowed in a flat rate plan, you’ll generally get a better price per credit.

Getting A Job With An Online Degree


I have good news and I have some bad news. Which do you want first?

The bad news? Okay. Basically, the reputation of graduates of some online schools has taken a real beating over the past few years. That’s because of some shady diploma mills and places that aren’t accredited. Some degrees that come from places like this are just not worth the time and money put into it.

But there’s good news. (Remember when I told you that a couple sentences ago?) Not all online schools are total bunk. In fact, there have been an increasingly high number of articles from places like TIME Magazine about how online degrees don’t appear to hurt a job applicant for many positions. That is, at least, the predicted future for degree holders. The article discusses how the University of Phoenix and ITT Tech are now making a big push into actually helping students after they graduate. They must have finally realized that going to school is actually more than just wanting to spend your days studying and stressing. Students actually want a job when they graduate!

Luckily, it looks like things are slowly turning around for online graduates. After researching this topic for way too many hours, it dawns on me that many articles and studies out there that are particularly damning of online schools are now a few years old. This study from Harvard professors that called online schools ‘agile predators’ is from January 2012. That makes it nearly 2 years old at this point.

Basically, things are getting better for online degree holders and that’s because they must if online schools want to stay up and running. If things had continued on the path they were, students would be chastised and outcast from jobs they’re qualified for. Now, however, there are clear signs that applications from online vs. brick and mortar school students are not necessarily viewed as being wildly different.

Another thing to consider when you’re looking at online schools is the school itself. This is no different than if you were deciding between brick and mortar schools, but it is worth mentioning, because a lot of people see most online education as being relatively equal. This is not the case at all! Especially considering that many already-established brick and mortar schools are moving into the online arena. An online degree from a brick and mortar school may be much more affordable than the in-person version of that degree from the same school, but you’ll still reap the benefits of any name notoriety and alumni networks that those schools have when you head out job hunting after graduation.

Cost vs Benefit

An interesting point that hasn’t really been raised much lately is that of cost versus benefit of online learning. Basically, it costs you a lot less to attend most online colleges. Simple as that. Compared to the costs associated with brick and mortar schools (housing, transportation, dorm living, ramen, etc.) there is a big reason to consider learning via the web. Couple that with the fact that job prospects are improving for both online and offline school graduates and you get some intriguing questions:

  • If it costs me $6,000 a year to attend an online school (versus $40-50,000 for in-person) then how much better do my job prospects need to be to rationalize the more expensive option?
  • If I spend a total of $30,000 for an online degree (versus $150,000 or so for in-person), how much more does my salary need to be over my lifetime to make up for the difference?

In other words, are you shooting yourself in the foot before you even start the race to a successful career by going to brick and mortar schools? Of course not. For the time being (and for quite awhile in the future), the only place to get the best education is going to be at a brick and mortar school. Whether you’re pursuing a specialty degree that involves hands-on science, technology, education, and / or math (STEM) then you’re likely better off at brick and mortars. Let’s also remember the social aspect. You need to get yourself out of your office or off the couch and socializing in order to really grow as as an adult. That’s hard to do if you’re pursuing a degree through an online college.

However, it’s not impossible to socialize while getting an online college. You simply need to be steadfast in your desire to grow as a person. That’s the biggest thing learned in all the research done on this topic. Basically, online colleges are great for motivated, busy, and engaged individuals. If you’re already at a full-time job and need a degree or some continuing education to advance then you’re a prime candidate. If you think online learning is an excuse to not do the work and to just spend more time playing video games, then you’re not going to be well-served.

Long story short: online learning is perfect for motivated and organized students. Brick and mortar learning is great for students in specialized programs or ones that need a bit more structure to their lives.

What Kind Of Financial Aid / Help Can I Get?

moneyGetting an online degree is going to be cheaper for just about anyone looking at brick and mortar schools. But just how much cheaper? Let’s take a look at an example and dive into what the numbers say.

At Boston University, full-time undergraduate students pay $42,400 (as of 2013) in tuition. For argument’s sake, let’s say that’s the total cost of attending in-person. For 18 credit hours, this comes out to about $2,355 per credit. Meanwhile, online students at Boston University pay about $600-750 per credit hour. For 18 credit hours, that would (on the upper end of the range) come out to an annual tuition of $13,500. That’s a savings of about $28,900. However, these are extremely vague numbers and simply meant to illustrate a point. I understand that you get different things for the money but the long story short is that credit hours cost schools like BU a lot less so they’re able to charge less.

It’s the same idea behind Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). As it stands, many courses on MOOCs like EdX, Coursera, and Udacity are pre-recorded lectures delivered to a room of students. The big expense has already been spent by the school which houses this professor and the students. It costs little extra to then put the lecture online and to make a website around it. You can charge a lot less and deliver it on a scale never before thought possible thanks to the web.

It’s the MOOCs and other competition for online learning that has kept the cost falling over the past couple of years. That’s great news for students of any age seeking some continuing education or a degree. Things are likely not going to get more expensive. In fact, probably cheaper. How many things in your life can you say that about? Crazy.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some financial aid and tax incentives for online degrees.

Step 1: Make sure your desired school is actually accredited. Make sure it’s accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education. Otherwise it might be a diploma mill or accredited by some fake agency. This is a very important step!

Step 2: Know if you’re looking into grants (don’t need to be repaid), loans (do need to be repaid), scholarships (harder to get, don’t need to be repaid), or work-study programs (get paid to work while studying, obviously).

Step 3: Do a ton of research. Seriously. Explore sites like GetEducated to find out what people say about financial aid at some schools.

Step 4: Fill out a FAFSA. Browse the federal listing of student financial aid opportunities.

Step 5: Check out the College Board‘s directory of aid.

Step 6: Now check out your chosen school’s resources for financial aid. You’re always better off going through public entities (the government, non-profits, etc.) than by going to the recommended private financial aid suppliers.

Every school and financial aid setup is different. This general overview should hopefully help clear up some of the confusion around how getting financial aid for online degrees actually happens. It’s quite similar to brick and mortar setups, to be honest.

The Takeaway

harvard campusLots of different types of schools offer online programs. Some of these schools are traditional brick and mortar schools that offer online programs (or even blended programs with some in class time and some online time) in addition to their traditional classroom based courses. Other schools only offer online options.

Currently it seems as though your best bet for an affordable degree is at a brick and mortar school that offers an online / distance degree. The Harvard University Extension School is probably the best example of this. You can get a Harvard degree thanks to their flexible program. You have to attend about a quarter of the courses in person but the rest can be done remotely. There’s a lot of work and you have to be accepted. But it’s probably your best bet right now.

That is, until open course systems like MOOCs evolve a bit more. Look out for when places like EdX start offering online degrees from Harvard and MIT as well as the other partner schools. That’ll be a big day in the world of online education.

That said, there are plenty of online-only schools that offer solid degrees that will save you money and get you better job prospects. The real truth to this whole thing is that you have to simply do the following to maximize your return on investment:

  • Be a motivated and dedicated student
  • Be extremely well organized
  • Know that you’ll need to do outside projects to really stand out. For example, getting an online degree in web design? Don’t rely on your school’s reputation and instead build your own! Make an amazing website that you can show off to potential employers.
  • Do a ton of research on federal and state-based financial aid.
  • Meet other graduates from your chosen school in person. Talk to them. See what they wish they could have done differently.
  • Know that you’re in an evolving field and that things could change during your time at an online school.

Lastly, you need to use your brain. If you’re looking for a cheap online school and you find one that seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are very few schools out there that will tick every single box for you AND not cost you much. You’ll have to compromise somewhere – whether you pay a little more, take a little bit longer to complete the degree, or wait a little longer to begin your studies, all of those are better compromises than paying slightly less for a cheap online college that won’t reap you much benefit in your long-term career.

Next Steps

If you’re ready to be an organized and motivated student (and who isn’t?!) then start figuring out a few things. Determine which degree you want to pursue. There are a lot. You can get a certificate or certification in training, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, a graduate degree, a master’s degree, a PhD / doctorate, and more. This part is, of course, up to you. The sky is the limit.

Once you choose your desired degree, start researching as much as possible. Follow the steps and ideas laid out in this article. Research financial aid. Talk to graduates in person or via Skype. Talk to your current employer about the benefit you’d get if you got a degree (online or offline) and what the future may hold.

Good luck!

1 Comment

  1. Michael Carter

    September 26, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Thank you for this. I’ve already shared it with folks in many states and several European countries. It’s so nice midst all the MOOC noise to hear some real signal on the subject of learning and how it’s evolving.