Affordable Online Colleges in America: 2016 Rankings
Edudemic ranked over 180 online colleges based on student value, price, and reputation. We recommend these schools for online students.
This ranking provides you with information about the most affordable colleges online out there today. We first assessed the schools using a complex group of variables, then stack ranked them, and eventually determined objective measurements of how far a dollar takes you at each one. The end result pointed us toward the colleges that had the best balance of low tuition and stellar performance metrics.
One more note: The colleges on our list aren’t the cheapest online colleges. Cheap is a meaningless indicator of an online school’s affordability since it does not take into account your ability to pay or what type of education you actually receive. A low price of admission isn’t valuable or noteworthy if the education you receive is lackluster—we made sure to avoid those schools.
Instead, we’re looking for low-cost, high-quality online programs. Do they really exist?
2016 Most Affordable Online Schools
|Edudemic Ranking||Edudemic Total Ranking Score||School||State||Online Department Link||Grant or Scholarship Aid: Percent Receiving Aid||Grant or Scholarship Aid: Average Amount Received||Retention Rate %||Graduation Rate %||Price Per Credit/Hour In-State||Price Per Credit/Hour Out-of-State||Tuition Page Link||Net Price Calculator||Number of Bachelor Degrees offered Online||Position/title||Admissions Contact Information|
|1||778||Oregon State University||Oregon||http://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/online-degrees/||60%||$7,040||83%||61%||$271.00||$271.00||http://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/soc/tuition/||oregonstate.edu/financialaid/net-price-calculator||17||Director of Admissionsemail@example.com|
|2||756||American Public University System||West Virginia||http://www.apu.apus.edu/academic/programs||35%||$3,349||94%||42%||$250.00||$250.00||http://www.apu.apus.edu/tuition-and-financing/tuition-and-fees/||www.apus.edu||42||Director of Admissionsfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|3||730||University of Florida||Florida||http://www.distance.ufl.edu/online-degree-programs||89%||$6,128||96%||87%||$129.19||$552.67||http://www.sfa.ufl.edu/uf-online/cost-of-attendance/||npc.collegeboard.org/student/app/ufl||13||Director of Admissionsemail@example.com|
|4||710||Old Dominion University||Virginia||http://dl.odu.edu/programs||47%||$6,883||80%||51%||$299.00||$314.00||http://dl.odu.edu/cost/overview||www.odu.edu/fusion/admission/netpricecalc.shtml||28||Executive Director of Admissionsfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|5||709||Florida International University||Florida||https://online.fiu.edu/programs||87%||$6,541||82%||52%||$215.94||$333.00||http://www.fiuonline.com/tuition-and-aid/tuition/index.php||www.collegeportraits.org/FL/FIU/estimator/agree||12||Director of Undergraduate Admissions||Jody.Glassman@fiu.edu|
|6||706||Westfield State University||Massachusetts||http://www.westfield.ma.edu/plato/?page_id=17||50%||$4,767||81%||59%||$260.00||$260.00||http://www.westfield.ma.edu/offices-services/graduate-continuing-education/dgce-tuition-fees/||www.westfield.ma.edu/netprice/||6||Director of Admissionsemail@example.com|
|7||696||University of Arkansas||Arkansas||http://online.uark.edu/programs/||60%||$7,137||81%||60%||$211.77||$211.77||http://online.uark.edu/courses/||finaid.uark.edu/331.php||3||Dean of Admissionsfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|8||686||University of Missouri||Missouri||http://online.missouri.edu/degreeprograms/index.aspx||61%||$6,968||84%||70%||$274.00||$350.00||http://cashiers.missouri.edu/costs/index.html#cashiersdistance||financialaid.missouri.edu/cost-of-attendance/net-price-calculator.php||6||Director of Admissionsemail@example.com|
|9||678||Moody Bible Institute||Illinois||http://www.moody.edu/distance-learning/||69%||$7,969||83%||84%||$300.00||$300.00||http://www.moody.edu/MDLcosts/||www.moody.edu/uploadedFiles/EDU/Website_Assets/Files/Financial_Aid/npcalc.html||4||Admissionfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|10||674||Fort Hays State University||Kansas||http://www.fhsu.edu/VIRTUALCOLLEGE/||42%||$4,411||68%||45%||$182.00||$182.00||http://www.fhsu.edu/sfs/students_parents/tuition/||www.collegeportraits.org/KS/FHSU/costs||27||Director of Admissionsemail@example.com|
|11||673||North Carolina State University (Raleigh)||North Carolina||http://www.ncsu.edu/academics/distance-education/||54%||$9,025||92%||74%||$222.00||$426.00||http://www.fis.ncsu.edu/cashier/tuition/ugtuition.asp||www.collegeportraits.org/NC/NC-State/estimator/agree||5||Director of Admissionfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|12||659||Norwich University||Vermont||http://online.norwich.edu/||98%||$23,419||86%||57%||$250.00||$250.00||http://online.norwich.edu/admissions/tuition-information||www.norwich.edu/admissions/financialaid/netpricecalculator||2||Director of Admissionsemail@example.com|
|13||652||Utah State University||Utah||http://online.usu.edu/degrees||53%||$6,139||72%||51%||$177.00||$290.00||http://www.usu.edu/budget/Documents/TuitionFees/2014-15USUtuition-feeSchedule.pdf||www.usu.edu/netprice/||8||Director of Admissionsfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|14||647||Florida State University||Florida||http://distance.fsu.edu/tags/online-degree||93%||$4,512||91%||77%||$215.55||$721||http://controller.vpfa.fsu.edu/Student-Financial-Services/SFS-For-Students/Tuition-Rates||www.collegeportraits.org/FL/FSU/estimator||7||Director of Admissionemail@example.com|
|15||640||East Carolina University||North Carolina||http://www.ecu.edu/cs-acad/ugcat/DistanceEd.cfm||49%||$8,304||78%||56%||$149.00||$663.00||http://www.ecu.edu/cs-admin/financial_serv/customcf/fees_cont_ed_fall_2014.pdf||www.collegeportraits.org/NC/ECU/estimator/agree||21||Director of Enrollment Servicesfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|16||637||Bryan College||Tennessee||http://www.bryan.edu/online_programs||88%||$14,288||75%||62%||$285.00||$285.00||http://www.bryan.edu/costs.html||www.bryan.edu/aid_estimator||4||Director of Admissionsemail@example.com|
|17||637||University of Minnesota (Twin Cities)||Minnesota||http://digitalcampus.umn.edu/programs/||54%||$8,021||91%||75%||$430.77||$430.77||http://admissions.tc.umn.edu/costsaid/tuition.html||npc.collegeboard.org/student/app/tcumn||15||Director of Admissions & Recruitmentfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|18||635||Appalachian State University||North Carolina||http://distance.appstate.edu/||39%||$7,843||88%||69%||$127.50||$540.00||http://distance.appstate.edu/financial-information/tuition-fees||appstate.edu/npc/||5||Director of Admissionsemail@example.com|
|19||631||University of North Dakota||North Dakota||http://distance.und.edu/degrees/||65%||$3,908||74%||55%||$322.54||$322.54||http://und.edu/finance-operations/student-account-services/tuition-rates.cfm||und.edu/admissions/financial-aid/cost-and-aid-estimator.cfm||11||Interim Executive Director of Enrollment Servicesfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|20||625||Baptist College of Florida||Florida||http://www.baptistcollege.edu/admissions/page.asp?content=admiss-home||100%||$5,571||69%||37%||$190.00||$190.00||http://www.baptistcollege.edu/admissions/page.asp?content=admiss-qfacts_tuit||www.baptistcollege.edu/finances/npcalc.asp||19||Admissions Counselor/Administrative Assistantemail@example.com|
With the exception of a few for-profit universities, all the schools in our rankings have physical campuses: they’re real places with real students that happen to also have robust distance learning programs, like the University of Florida and Pennsylvania State University. For-profits are certainly included in our list, but they rank much lower than many other schools (they are generally more expensive and don’t promise quality) and are provided only as a reference. As a baseline for programmatic rigor, we started our process by surveying only online programs that made the The Best Online Colleges of 2016 from the site BestColleges.com. This list already filters out the largest for-profit universities, and our final rankings include an in-depth look at household names like Kaplan.
Although affordable and cheap are sometimes used interchangeably, they’re not the same. North Carolina A&T State University, the cheapest online college in our overall survey by in-state tuition, is not the most affordable, nor is it a school that would make the top ten. Why? Because other factors, like the school’s retention rate, are very low.
This lowers the effective value of a dollar at NC A&T versus a dollar at the University of Arkansas (a place that does make our top ten). At the University of Arkansas, retention and graduation rates are high, a diverse gamut of classes is offered, and tuition is comparably cheaper against the average. It’s a better quality experience for your money.
We set out to find the most affordable online colleges available today. Since most measurements of affordability are complex, we simplified the formula to match the scope of our analysis. Online colleges found on BestCollege.com represent a filtered list of respectable, real institutions offering value through Internet education–so this is where we started. By only analyzing schools that comprise the highest tier of national recognition when it comes to online education, we ensure an inherent quality in our own results.
After combing through each school’s resources, we distilled our description of affordability into four major factors:
- retention rate: the percentage of freshmen that continue on to sophomore year
- graduation rate: the percentage of freshmen that acquire a diploma in a designated period of time
- resident (in state) price score: a measure of the relative price per credit hour of education for an in-state student
- nonresident (out of state) price score: a measure of the relative price per credit hour of education for an out of state student student
- breadth of offering score: a measure of the relative number of degree programs offered by the school
We assigned each factor a different weight to account for instances where an extremely high graduation rate could be influenced by an extremely low breadth of offering score (for example). Each school was then stack ranked by the sum of the weighted scores. The top schools were analyzed in an additional layer of detail which calls out unique characteristics that make them stand out above their peers.
Usually during discussions of affordability there is an “affordable sweet spot” right in the middle of all the data. This sweet spot represents a point where a college is perfectly affordable for the average student. In a small band around this point are similar schools whose costs do not eclipse the benefits received from an online degree program. If you extend too far above the sweet spot, an online college becomes very expensive relative to the benefits; if you extend too far below the sweet spot, you are entering the territory where programs are so cheap that their quality becomes questionable.
What this means is that while a basic weighted ranking of all the schools in our analysis is important, it’s just a starting point. We have gone through each school with another critical filter and added in an even finer layer of detail. For example, how far from the average is a certain school’s in-state tuition? How does this value compare to the number of degree programs that the school offers? How far away is this number from the average? By asking tougher questions and balancing their answers against other factors that make a school great (its quality and breadth of graduate programs, for instance) we have come up with ten colleges that, while not necessarily the top ten in our list, cater to the common desires of an average student looking to get a college education at distance at a reasonable price. In other words, they’re our affordable favorites.
Oregon State University
Why we picked this university: An unmatched balance of quality, quantity, and price put Oregon State University (OSU) at the number one spot in the overall list using our unique methodology. It also happens to be one of our favorites. OSU is a very reputable research school, and its long tradition of high quality extends into its online classes. Several programs and faculty within OSU’s ecampus have earned notable distinctions and awards for their work within the last year.
OSU’s ecampus tuition rate is $279 per credit hour, which is significantly lower than the average of the schools in our list ($389). It offers 17 different bachelor’s degree programs online (double our list’s average of 9) which cover computer science and much of the humanities. Relative to the quality of education students receive and the diversity of courses offered, the money you pay goes a long way in furnishing a rich educational experience. OSU even lets students create their own online degree experience by developing a liberal studies track in conjunction with faculty to suit their academic goals.
Drawbacks: Although the ecampus at OSU has a 60% graduation rate (which is low compared to other schools we analyzed), it retains 83% of its freshman students each year, which is high. There are many reasons for a low graduation rate: inability to pay for classes, relative difficulty of course material, and inability to finish required courses are only a few, so this not always a make or break number.
University of Florida
Why we picked this university: This school is the best bang for your buck, but only if you live in Florida. It comes in at number three on our ranking list and we highlighted it here due to its low cost. Boasting a low in-state tuition rate of $129 per credit hour, it is half as expensive to get an online degree at the University of Florida (UF) as it is at Oregon State University. Lawmakers in Florida have invested more than $35 million into UF’s online program, which launched in January 2016 with 595 students. For the fall 2016 semester, that number is expected to double, and by 2024 the university is shooting for enrollment numbers over 20,000. Currently UF Online offers 13 different online bachelor’s degree programs. It is likely this number will increase with enrollment.
Drawbacks: The major caveat with UF Online is that if you are not a resident of Florida, the program quickly becomes expensive. Out-of-state online students pay more than 400% more per credit hour ($525) than in-state students. If you don’t live in Florida and are operating on a tight budget, UF Online is not for you. Because the program is still new, its graduation and retention rates are extremely high. It will be important to watch how they change as the program begins accepting more students.
Florida State University
Why we picked this university: Florida State University (FSU) came in at number 14 on our list, but we believe it deserves mention due to its relatively high retention and graduation rates (91% and 77%, respectively). FSU also offers more than fifteen different online graduate degree programs in addition to its undergraduate offerings (7 bachelor’s degree programs, a lower total than average). At $215 per credit hour for in-state students, FSU represents a school with a strong profile in all categories, even though it doesn’t offer as many options as its peers at the undergraduate level.
Drawbacks: Like the University of Florida, nonresident online tuition rates are much higher than for in-state students ($721 versus $215).
East Carolina University
Why we picked this university: Number 15 on our list, East Carolina University (ECU) has been offering courses at distance for at least 60 years. It gets mention here primarily because of its robust online course offerings, which include over 20 online undergraduate degrees and a similar amount of online graduate certificate programs. Reflected against its $149 per credit hour tuition rate and reasonable online retention (78%), East Carolina University represents an affordable school with a wide selection of degree options.
Drawbacks: East Carolina University charges $663 per credit hour for out-of-state students in its online programs. If you do not live in North Carolina, you should consider another school. ECU also has a low online graduation rate of 56%.
University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Why we picked this university: At number 17, the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities (UM Twin Cities) receives mention due to strong numbers in all categories. Although it has a higher than average online in-state tuition at $430 per credit hour, it has a 91% retention rate and graduate 75% of students. With access to 15 unique online bachelor’s degree programs in rapidly growing fields today, UM Twin Cities especially prepares its graduates for industrial success. Unlike many online schools, UM Twin Cities also keeps profiles of some of its notable alumni from its online programs on its website–so you can see what people are doing with their degrees in the real world. UM Twin Cities’ tution is the same for in-state and out-of-state students.
Drawbacks: UM Twin Cities has a tuition rate that is higher than average, so it is best only for students who have a little more money to invest in the experience.
Old Dominion University
Why we picked this university: Old Dominion University (ODU) came in at number four on our list for good reason, and we think it stands out. In addition to a reasonably priced online in-state tuition of $299 per credit hour (which only increases to $314 for nonresidents), ODU has an 80% retention rate, which is well above average. It also offers 28 different online bachelor’s degree programs, triple the average in our list. Old Dominion University goes a step beyond its peers by providing video interviews with alumni from various online programs, who are currently applying their expertise in industry.
Drawbacks: ODU has a very low graduation rate of 51%. Although there are many non-negative reasons why a graduation rate could dip below 100%, it is best to investigate further into your program of interest. For example, the overall graduation rate might be 51%, but students from the school of business might graduate at a much higher rate.
University of North Dakota
Why we picked this university: The University of North Dakota came in at number 19 on our list, but we feel that it differs from its peers in a special way. With an online tuition of $322 per credit hour for both in-state and out of state students (below average), 74% retention, and a robust set of online bachelor’s and graduate degree programs, it represents an affordable place to get an online education. Where it really shines is in the spectrum of different subjects in which it offers degrees, which ranges from petroleum engineering to psychology and education. We feel the equal offering of both humanities and science-based online degrees makes UND a worthwhile place to consider for an affordable online education.
Drawbacks: The University of North Dakota has a low graduation rate of 55%.
Why we picked this university: Regent University (RU) is number 28 on our list, but it stands out because of the thoroughness of its degree offerings. The university has a 79% retention rate and charges both in-state and nonresident online students $395 per credit hour, which is slightly above average. Unlike many schools, Regent offers very well-developed associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctoral degrees online (one of its Ph.D. programs requires some on-campus visitation), so it is possible to move from beginner’s education to advanced levels of study entirely through the web.
Drawbacks: Regent University has a low graduation rate of 51%.
Fort Hayes University
Why we picked this university: Fort Hayes State University (FHSU) is number 10 on our list, and we like it particularly for its unusually low tuition costs and relatively high course offerings. FHSU has only slightly below average retention and graduation rates (68% and 45% respectively), but it is cheap at $182 per credit hour for both nonresident and in-state students. It offers 27 different online bachelor’s degree programs, which for the price you pay is a very good deal.
Drawbacks: Fort Hayes has below average marks in some places, but it is an outlier in the number of programs it offers for the price you pay. We recommend that you look deeper into specific degrees in order to make an informed decision about whether or not a degree track at this school is right for you.
American Public University
Why we picked this university: American Public University (APU) is number two in our list, and we recommend it because it has above average marks just about everywhere. With an in-state and nonresident tuition of $250, over 40 different online bachelor’s degree programs (5 times the average), and an extremely high retention rate of 94%, no other university in the top ten comes close to its sheer balance of dollar value to course option diversity. APU also notes that its combined tuition, fees and books are about 20% less for undergraduates than the average in-state rate at other public universities.
Drawbacks: APU has a low graduation rate of 42%. Since it is such a large system, however, we recommend checking out the graduation rates in specific programs that interest you rather than judging all online programs by this number.
What We Wouldn’t Recommend
You should think of a college education as a product you’re buying. You pay a lot of money and invest a lot of time into getting a degree, so it is wise to do comparison shopping. Sure, one college might be cheaper than another. It might also offer more degree options than another. But if it only graduates 10% of the people who enter, you know there’s something wrong and that you want to look somewhere else. Our favorite colleges are a very dynamic and balanced mix of cost, general graduation and retention scores, and degree offerings. Are there colleges we would recommend you stay away from that also appear on our list? Of course. But this is the nature of comparing products with an objective eye.
Kaplan University is number 101 on our list. It has a decent retention rate of 80% and a slightly above average tuition of $395 per credit hour. However, its graduation rate is 20%. That means of every 10 people accepted to a Kaplan University program, only 2 actually graduate with a diploma. There are many possible explanations for this phenomenon, which happens at most for-profit universities; the most popular explanation is that since these institutions need to make money, they have less stringent acceptance policies. This, in turn, has the potential to reduce the “graduation potential” of an incoming class of first-year students. Loose acceptance policies attract a different type of student, and may contribute to high dropout numbers.
Furthermore, a closer look at Kaplan’s credit hour price reveals that even though it’s just slightly above the average on our list, it actually costs much more to get a bachelor’s degree there on average than anywhere else. This is because Kaplan’s online bachelor programs are 180 credit hours total, which is 60 more credit hours than the national average bachelor’s degree. Let’s put this into perspective.
The University of Florida (one of our favorites!) has a big drawback: it charges out-of-state students $552 per credit hour to get an online degree. This is more than 400% what an in-state resident pays. However, to get a bachelor’s degree at UF online at this rate is:
- 552 $/credit hour x 120 credit hours (average) = $66,240*
Now let’s look at getting an online bachelor’s degree at Kaplan:
- 395 $/credit hour x 180 credit hours = $71,100*
For comparison, here is how this calculation looks for Oregon State University, a school we consider affordable:
- 297 $/credit hour x 120 credits (average) = $33,480*
*these are rough illustrative calculations. actual numbers will vary.
So actually, you’d be paying more to go Kaplan than if you went to the University of Florida online with their out-of-state tuition rate. It would not be immediately apparent to you, however, if you only compared their cost per credit hour in your initial filter.
We recommend that you do further investigation if the numbers of schools you’re comparing looks off. Any school that charges significantly more than average, which inflates its required credit hours for graduation, or which has big discrepancies in numbers like graduation and retention rates should be approached with caution. Take the time to look into extreme outliers: even if they offer what you want, you can probably find a better deal somewhere else.
The Affordable Online College Landscape
At the end of the day, we have found that it is definitely possible to get an affordable and good-quality online education in the United States. Sometimes, the best place to get that degree might be at a college in your state (we’re looking at you, Floridians), and other times it might be in a place that’s hundreds of miles from where you actually live. Like all choices we face in life, some online degree programs are better suited for us than others, so you should be very careful in which one you select. Just because a school has a slightly lower than average graduation rate doesn’t mean that it isn’t a great school for you, either, since the graduation rates of individual programs can vary widely at even the best colleges in the world.
In addition to there being a lot of affordable and good quality options to choose from, many of these schools also have well-developed online graduate programs which vary from fully blown out master’s degrees to professional certificates. And, some schools even offer online doctoral degrees (though these will often require you to visit the campus at least two to six times a year, as expected).
The bottom line: you can get a good degree online at a price that doesn’t leave you buried in debt. Be careful where you look, always compare, and be prepared to make personal demands about what does and doesn’t work for you. The reason that there are lots of schools in the first place is so that you can tailor the experience to fit your learning style–so don’t make compromises.