Are Online Degrees Cheaper Than Traditional Degrees?

The costs associated with earning a college degree have increased significantly, so students and their families are, understandably, exploring whether online degrees are cheaper than traditional degrees. There are various ways to pay for a college degree, but it makes sense to examine the issue of affordability by considering alternatives to traditional routes to learning. Online education is not new, but its popularity in recent years was boosted with advances in technology and greater access to the internet. In most cases, students can access online courses just as easily as courses delivered in on-campus settings, so this alternative should not be dismissed casually.

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Eliminate Costs for Room and Board

Students who choose to attend out-of-area or out-of-state colleges will incur residential fees. College freshmen are often required to stay in on-campus dormitories or off-campus apartments later on. Either way, housing is one of the major expenses for college students, accounting for at least 25 percent of total expenses. In some cases, students’ room and board expenses may take up as much as 40 percent of college costs, depending on meal plan choices. Students pursuing online degrees will forego these costs while living at home.

Cut Transportation Costs

Students commuting to school will have to add transportation costs while students in out-of-state colleges should budget for travel expenses such as airline, bus or train tickets or gas, auto maintenance and insurance for car owners. Pursuing an online degree will limit the need to commute, drive or fly to the campus, reducing travel-related expenses. Students may still encounter these expenses when traveling for research, campus presentations, and internships.


In both online and traditional schools, tuition cost is based on the number of credit hours that each student is enrolled in. The cost-per-credit-hour is determined by the schools, and the values vary widely from one college to the next. Colleges that offer both online and traditional degrees have the option of charging the same tuition rate for both options. Without expenses for student housing, meals and transportation, those pursuing online degrees will incur lower expenses overall.

However, some colleges may have the ability to offer online courses at a lower rate than traditional classes. Colleges that specialize in online courses would not need a massive real estate portfolio and the attendant costs tied to maintenance and management of their properties. Their operational costs would center on program development, payroll, and marketing. Operational efficiencies may translate to lower fees for students. Forbes points out that developing online courses is costly and it is assumed that the tuition table will reflect these costs. A study prepared by the Florida Board of Governors found that online courses may cost more by about $41.48 per credit hour to deliver compared to traditional classroom delivery of the same material.

Bonus Benefits of Online Learning

Completing an online degree may cost less in the long run even when tuition is the same or higher. Online students do not have to spend on housing, meals, transportation and other expenses associated with attending on-campus classes. There are also opportunity costs of earning a degree in the traditional setting. Online students work at their own pace and on their own schedule, which means they can work full-time. Nontraditional students, including those who are breadwinners, parents or caregivers for elderly parents, will find online degrees more suitable given their commitments.

Online degrees may be cheaper than traditional degrees because students can eliminate some expenses such as room and board. Additionally, pursuing an online degree provides a more flexible schedule that allows students to pursue other interests.