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Understanding the cost of college — online vs. traditional

This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.

Reviewed by Chris Conway, Director of Financial Education Initiatives and Repayment Management

At a glance

  • The increasing cost of college can discourage many potential students, prompting a need to explore affordable options, both traditional and online.

  • Online degrees may offer cost savings, with an average online bachelor's degree costing less per credit hour than its traditional counterpart.

  • Tuition costs vary based on factors like the type of college and residency status. The bulk of expenses goes to tuition and fees, but additional costs, such as books and supplies, should be considered when budgeting.

  • Strategies to save on college expenses include choosing in-state public institutions, community colleges, applying for scholarships and considering fixed tuition rates.

This article was updated on December 11, 2023.

Why is college so expensive? That's probably everyone's number-one question when they begin their journey toward pursuing higher education. And with the average cost of college increasing every year, it's no wonder many potential students are discouraged from taking the next step.

Fortunately, there are ways to make college more affordable. It starts by exploring all of your options (both traditional and online) and getting the facts on how you can save money no matter where you go to school.

A college degree can help provide the possibility of enhancing a career or changing careers. An online degree allows you to do so from the comfort of your home. But how much does online college cost and is it more affordable than attending a traditional college?

Before committing, do your homework and research colleges in your desired field of study, both traditional and online, to determine the total cost based on your degree program. Below, we will break down the cost of online and traditional college and the ways you can save for both to help you make an informed decision.

The average cost of attending an online college

For individuals returning to college after a hiatus or those with a full-time job or dependent children, attending an online college can be an ideal pathway toward higher education.

According to U.S. News & World Report, an online bachelor's degree from a public college during the 2019-20 academic year cost an average of $316 per credit hour, while an online bachelor's degree from a private college cost an average of $488 per credit hour. Furthermore, some colleges use alternative credit loads to appear cheaper. So, while they are $316 per credit, each class is 4 or 5 credits, making them more expensive. Meanwhile, the on-campus cost for the same degree from the same private college was $1,240 per credit — much pricier than an online degree.

That said, a survey by The Changing Landscape of Online Education found there is sometimes no change in tuition cost between on-campus and online degrees at the same institution.

Where the savings may come into play is outside of tuition costs.

Attending an online college may help save money in indirect ways. This can include lower (or non-existent) commuting costs, buying digital textbooks and spending less money on meals, parking, and day care or babysitters.

Explore more than 600 credit-bearing courses to help you meet your educational goals. 

The average cost of attending a traditional college

The average cost of attending a traditional college depends on several factors. Attending an in-state college will typically be less expensive than an out-of-state college. Additionally, a two-year college will cost less than a four-year college. Attending a private institution is usually more costly than attending a public one.

According to College Board’s report "Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid," the following reflect the average tuition costs for the 2020-21 academic year (including fees, but excluding room and board) for full-time undergraduate students:

  • Public two-year in-district: $3,770
  • Public four-year in-state: $10,560
  • Public four-year out-of-state: $27,020
  • Private nonprofit four-year: $37,650

Those averages increase when room and board are included:

  • Public two-year in-district: $12,850
  • Public four-year in-state: $22,180
  • Public four-year out-of-state: $38,640
  • Private nonprofit four-year: $50,770

The bulk of most college students' educational expenses goes to tuition and fees. This means your choice of college will have the greatest impact on the final cost of your education. However, it's wise to consider other expenses as well. Expenses include the cost of books and supplies, transportation, clothing, personal items and entertainment.

For example, the average cost of books and supplies for public four-year in-state students at a traditional college is estimated to be $1,240 in 2020-21, a considerable sum that should be factored into your total budget.

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Ways to save on traditional and online college

While these numbers provide a baseline for the average cost of attending a traditional college, they’re not the whole story. There are ways to save, in other words.

The most obvious of these is to choose a public, four-year, in-state institution that's close to your current place of residence (to avoid paying room and board). Or, if your degree of choice allows it, you may attend a two-year institution, otherwise known as a community college. You can also start your education at a community college to complete the mandatory general education classes, then transfer to a four-year institution.


Christine Conway, director of financial education initiatives at University of Phoenix (UOPX), suggests applying for scholarships to help reduce some of the costs of higher education.

“The best part is the money does not have to be paid back," Conway says. "There are many different scholarships available for students to apply for from colleges, community organizations, private companies and associations.”

Conway acknowledges that scholarship hunting can take time. But she adds, “When you think of it as hourly earnings, it can definitely be worth it. For example, if you spend 10 hours searching and applying. Receiving a $1,000 scholarship would be equal to $100 an hour!”

University of Phoenix is offering up to $1 million in scholarship opportunities this month. To learn more, visit our scholarship opportunities page.

Fixed tuition

Josephine Owens, director of enrollment at UOPX, says students often ask questions about “the benefit of our fixed tuition rate.”

A fixed tuition rate locks in your tuition cost for your entire program. This can make it easier to budget and helps you avoid costly surprises. Owens adds, “Education costs have risen an average of 2.6% every year in the U.S. overall.” This means a fixed tuition rate could help you save money in the long run.

University of Phoenix offers a Tuition Guarantee, so students pay one flat rate from enrollment to graduation from their program. If you’re interested in the University’s cost per credit or how tuition compares to competitors, visit the tuition and financial options page. However, not every school offers a fixed tuition rate, so make sure to check with your institution’s financial department.

Other savings

If you're employed and considering attending college, ask your employer about tuition reimbursement, which may cover “thousands per year,” says Conway. She suggests contacting your human resources department to verify if your company provides this benefit.

Another cost-reducing option is the Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) — the process where a university evaluates your relevant work or life experiences to determine what might qualify for college credit. Eligible experiences can include on-the-job training, industry certifications, standardized exams, military service or life-based skills. Unlike most universities, University of Phoenix does not charge for PLA. To learn more, visit our Prior Learning Assessment page.

Conway says of PLA, “You'll most likely need to provide documentation to demonstrate your experience and knowledge. But this can be time well spent since it could result in credits earned at no additional cost.”

No matter how you choose to save, many options are available to support your dreams of attending college, both in-person and online.

All you need to do is pursue them.

Paying for school is an investment. If you’re unfamiliar with the financial aid options available to you and how to apply, check out your options on our blog.

Ready to take the next step? Learn how you can make time to go back to school as a busy parent.

Portrait of Lilia Ortiz


Lilia Ortiz is a writer and artist whose creative journey has been shaped by an appreciation for the beauty inherent in the ordinary. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English literature from Arizona State University in 2013 and a degree in graphic design from Phoenix College in 2018. Her unique approach to visual design intertwines the tangible with the intangible: She weaves together words, thoughts and ideas with texture, color and pattern. Each result is a testament to the storytelling possibilities that emerge from the convergence of literary and visual arts. She lives in Buckeye, Arizona with her husband, Adam, and dog, Pinto.


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