Is It Cheaper to Go to College Online? Our Expert Take

Posted on June 29, 2023

Posted on June 29, 2023

If you’re making the decision to get a degree after high school or go back and finish your degree, you have a lot of options with traditional and online education.

While there are differences between online vs. in-person experiences, one of the biggest ones is the cost. 

Whether you’re working with your own budget or you’re worried about drowning in student debt after graduation, the cost of your education is an important factor in your decision.

Take a look at the differences in cost between online and traditional education, what you can do to save, and how to decide which is best for you. 

Traditional College

For some, the traditional college experience is part of the appeal of attending college. They share classes with fellow students, stay in a dorm, eat meals in the dining hall, and cheer for the school team – building social support as well as educational support.

There are education and career benefits as well, including opportunities to network and build relationships with people who will benefit their professional goals. These relationships are easier to cultivate in person than online.

In addition, younger college students often benefit from the structure and guidance that’s offered with in-person college. Transitioning from the strictly managed environment of high school to the more independent, self-managed college learning experience can be jarring – but these support systems are designed to cultivate independence while providing an educational safety net. 

But all of this can come with high costs. Colleges and universities factor the costs of buildings, dorms, and food into the tuition costs, often leading to extra fees for everything from meal plans to parking. There are amenities, such as access to the school fitness center or onsite lectures and events.

All traditional college doesn’t come with the same sticker price, however. It can range from small community colleges to state universities (with different in-state and out-of-state costs) to pricey private institutions like the Ivy League, all with different price points.

Many of these institutions offer financial aid to help with the costs. Often, this means lower out-of-pocket expenses for your education, especially if you combine them with federal student aid. Keep in mind, however, that student loans will need to be paid back – plus interest.

There are ways to save, though. Traditional colleges may offer summer courses – either online or in-person – that you can take to accelerate your program. You can also take core courses at a community college or online with a program like Sophia Learning, which often have much lower costs for tuition, books, and other fees. 

If you choose this option, remember to consider the costs if you’re staying in student housing and need meal plans, transportation, or parking during the summer. You must evaluate the full costs, not just what you’ll save in tuition.

If you take courses at another school. It’s important to speak to your advisor to make sure that any transfer credits from an outside institution will be accepted.

Online College

Generally, online learning is more affordable than traditional college. You still get the same quality of education, but the lower overhead costs mean that tuition is lower. In addition, you won’t have added fees for housing, meal plans, transportation, parking, or amenities, as these are all expenses you have outside of school (and expenses you’d probably have regardless). 

That said, online tuition is still a big investment that may require financial aid and out-of-pocket costs. Your biggest savings will be with all the “extras” you won’t have to pay for, all of which add to the higher tuition costs at traditional colleges and universities.

But keep in mind that your savings come at the cost of some of the support, socializing, and networking that you get from living on or near campus and attending courses in person.

Some online colleges or courses do have hidden fees, such as technology fees or lab fees, that can inflate your tuition. It’s important to be discerning when you’re evaluating your options.

One of the biggest benefits of online college – along with generally lower tuition – is that it’s more flexible overall. Many online courses are asynchronous, so you can complete your coursework at whatever time works best for you to manage other responsibilities to work or family. 

You also have flexibility in how you complete your degree that may not be available at traditional college. You can take summer courses online or challenge courses that you already know with the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP). Fewer courses means fewer terms, getting you to graduation faster (and cheaper).

Another option is to take your gen ed courses online and transfer them with programs like Sophia Learning. These courses are core requirements for a degree and equivalent to the course you’d take at a college or university, but they come at a much lower price point.  

With Sophia, a wide range of gen ed courses are available in a self-paced online format. For one subscription fee, you can take up to two courses at a time to knock out your gen eds. It’s important to check with your academic advisor at your preferred institution to ensure that your courses will transfer, however.

Evaluate True Costs 

When you’re choosing between online and traditional education, be sure to contact the financial aid offices of the schools you’re considering to understand their full cost of attendance, average degree cost, financial aid packages, and eligibility for government aid.

Compare the full dollar amounts – including all applicable fees or associated costs – to understand your financial investment. Small fees, such as student activity fees, library fees (online or on-campus), and course materials can add up quickly.

If your preferred school seems out of your budget, consider options to save with scholarships, transfer courses, CLEP, or work-experience credits. The financial aid office should be able to help you with resources and opportunities to save.

The Verdict 

Generally, online degrees can be cheaper than traditional degrees, but not always. Colleges and universities vary widely in their tuition costs, fees, and more. Be sure to conduct your own research to find the most affordable and appropriate option and save where you can, including taking online transfer courses at Sophia. Start a free trial or explore our courses!

Category: Higher Education

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