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Most Affordable Online Colleges for 2021
Earning a college degree is an investment. A recent study found that two-thirds of students graduate with student loans ranging between $19,750 to $38,650. For someone just starting out in their career, monthly loan payments are a heavy burden to bear. Finding ways to save as much money as possible on your education is the best way to avoid overwhelming student loan debt.
There are plenty of affordable online colleges providing cheap online masters degrees, as well as affordable bachelors degrees. If you’re just getting started in your college journey, consider completing your degree’s general ed requirements at the cheapest online college to save yourself some money.
We’ve reviewed data points including pricing, graduation statistics, and degrees offered to create a useful list for the best distance learning schools. Read on for the best and cheapest online bachelor degree and masters programs.
Best Affordable Online Colleges of 2021
- University of Florida – Best overall
- University of Minnesota-Twin Cities – Best for scholarships
- Indiana University – Most affordable
- University of Illinois at Springfield – Best for program variety
- University of Arkansas – Best for variety of graduate programs
- Florida International University – Best for undecided majors
- Texas Tech University – Best for online experience
Best Affordable online colleges at a glance
|School||Annual Tuition||Graduation Rate||Num. of Online Master’s Degrees||Num. of Bachelor’s Degrees|
|University of Florida||$3,876 in-state|
|University of Minnesota – Twin Cities||$15,027 in-state|
| 67% part time|
93% full time
|Indiana University||$9,701 in-state|
|University of Illinois at Springfield||$11,813 in-state|
|University of Arkansas||$9,384 in-state|
|Florida International University|| $6,565 in-state|
|Texas Tech University|| $9,300 in-state|
Best overall – University of Florida
Affordable tuition and a curriculum similar to what you’d get if you attended on-campus classes.
The University of Florida has been offering online degrees since 2001 and is one of the veterans of distance learning to make education more accessible to all. What makes the University of Florida stand apart from other affordable online colleges is who teaches the courses. Students will have access to lectures and a curriculum created by the same faculty and professors who teach the on-campus courses.
If you’re already juggling a job or kids, you’ll be able to study on your schedule. The study modules can be accessed at any time so you can work on them when it’s best for you. Besides a variety of bachelors degrees including business, criminology, communications, nursing, computer science, and psychology, the University of Florida offers certification programs and graduate degree programs.
Our Two Cents: Earn the same degree from home in your pajamas as your peers would get on-campus.
Best for scholarships – University of Minnesota -Twin Cities
Lower-income families are guaranteed a needs-based scholarship based on household income.
The University of Minnesota Twin Cities is known to provide a world-class online education for students interested in learning at their own pace. It’s one of 19 schools in the UofM network and offers everything from certification to masters and graduate degrees. The online college allows students to customize their educational package. They could choose to study 100% online, mostly online, with at least 80% done through distance learning or a custom combination of on-campus and online studies.
There are a variety of achievement-based scholarships available for students with financial need. They include a Gold Scholar award that provides $10,000 per year for four years and a Maroon and Gold Leadership Award of $12,000 per year. All students are guaranteed a need-based scholarship of $570 to $4,000 per year if their family’s household earns less than $100,000 annually through the U Promise Scholarship program.
Our Two Cents: Top of the class students are likely to win the jackpot and get most of their tuition paid through the school’s scholarships.
Most affordable – Indiana University
Indiana University makes college accessible to all — even those with the most limited budget.
If you’re interested in earning a degree in fields such as criminal justice, mathematics, business administration, nursing, or political science, Indiana University may be the most affordable school to enroll with. The IU Online program offers over 100 online degrees from the comfort of your home and at your own pace.
Besides four-year degrees, IU may have the best and cheapest online masters degree variety around. You can save further by reviewing your work and life experience to request credit. There are several ways IU awards life credits — by taking and passing a test, presenting a portfolio of your work, or show you’ve been honorably discharged from the military. For example, if you have some knowledge in social sciences, you can test out and receive credit in liberal arts. Or, if you’ve had law enforcement training, you may be eligible for 12 undergraduate credit hours in public and environmental affairs.
Our Two Cents: Save yourself some time and money and get college credits for life experience.
Best for program variety – University of Illinois at Springfield
UIS provides plenty of online four-year and graduate degrees with access to support services for guidance.
UIS makes it possible to start (or finish) your studies from home and at your own pace. The school has 52 online programs available through the Springfield campus, including the most popular majors, such as business, computer science, healthcare, political science, and education. The courses are available in eight or 16 weeks, depending on the subject.
One of the more challenging parts of studying online is the lack of guidance. UIS has a support services team available 24/7 to help students with online technical support and online-focused departments, two of which are geared towards better servicing students. They are the Continuing and Professional Education (CAPE) program, which provides profession-based assistance to students and the Office of Engaged Learning (OEL) for access to study-away programs and internships.
Our Two Cents: Study online, but have access to a human when you need help with library access or a technical issue.
Best for variety of graduate programs – University of Arkansas
Ideal for individuals seeking to take their education one step further by earning a graduate degree.
Regardless of whether you’re starting your college distance learning journey as a freshman or planning on heading back to school for graduate studies, the University of Arkansas is one of the most affordable online colleges. Its most popular four-year major is registered nursing. But when it comes to an online graduate degree, most individuals enroll in education and engineering. The University of Arkansas offers 24 cheap online master degrees, including Master of Social Work, Nursing, Food Safety, and Electrical Engineering.
All students, regardless of location, that are enrolled in an approved UofA online degree program, are entitled to pay in-state tuition fees, saving them considerable money. They won’t miss out on the features on-campus students have access to — online UofA students receive the same level of education and services provided to students that attend campus classes.
Our Two Cents: With UofA, you can earn a low-cost graduate degree — from wherever you may be.
Best for undecided majors – Florida International University
A large number of majors and personal guidance from enrollment to graduation will improve your chances of getting a degree.
Florida International University has rolling enrollment for people who have decided it’s time to get back to school and earn a degree. You don’t necessarily need to know what path you’d like to take — all you need is the desire and commitment to get started. With almost 50 online undergrad degrees available, you’re bound to find your way eventually.
Once you do enroll, FIU will appoint you with dedicated academic advisors through their Success Coach system to guide you and improve your chances of graduating. Known as Success Coaches, they will act as your school contact to provide you with all the information you need, help you fine-tune your major and provide the encouragement you need to get a college degree under your belt.
Our Two Cents: FIU provides you with the equivalent of a personal trainer to keep you accountable regarding your studies.
Best for online experience – Texas Tech University
TTU may be the most prepared college when it comes to distance learning, thanks to its faculty training and online resources.
Texas Tech University offers over 40 online degrees that are equivalent in quality to what an on-campus student would earn. Although the program is fully distance-learning based, remote students will work with on-campus faculty and instructors. All faculty are trained in distance education, so the university programs can smoothly transition to remote education, should the university need to shut down in case of a pandemic, natural disaster or emergency.
A variety of tools and resources for faculty and students are available through TTU’s Information Technology division. Students and staff have access to Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, Microsoft Office 365 and Skype for Business. IT assistance is available by phone, email and web chat, so that less tech-savvy students can catch up quickly.
Our Two Cents: There’s a reason the school is called Texas Tech — the online experience is tops in this round-up of best affordable online colleges.
How online college programs work
Online learning works just like a traditional college experience. You’ll need to choose your courses, attend lectures (although they’re typically virtual and pre-recorded for online students), and submit your assignments according to strict deadlines. On-campus and online courses typically cover the same curriculum, both of which require hours of work outside of the physical or virtual classroom. If you’re not big on spending time reading and writing, you better get up to speed — online college requires as much reading and writing as a traditional college experience.
Difference between on-campus and online college
The most significant difference for students will be the level of self-discipline required. They’ll need to keep motivated and organized to get their work done, be online at certain times as an instructor may require. The one positive to an online college is that students may be able to work faster towards their degree through online learning than on-campus. That’s because much of the course material can be accessed at any hour, making it easier for students to work on their schedule and pace.
How instructors teach online students
The professor will create a lesson plan that includes regular virtual classes. The lessons may either be synchronous (live) or asynchronous (pre-recorded and on-demand). Depending on the instructor and the school, some courses may require you to tune in for live instruction and participate in the lecture. Other lessons are pre-recorded and can be reviewed at your convenience.
Make sure you choose a school and courses that work with your needs. If you have a full-time job, asynchronous courses are your best bet. You won’t have to check-in at certain hours of the day and can catch up on the week’s curriculum at any hour of the day or night.
Besides the online classes, your instructor will provide you with a syllabus and other instructions at the beginning of the year. You may receive the information by email or through your online classroom module. It will include what to expect, your instructor’s expectations, the books and materials you’ll need, a schedule of when new assignments are uploaded and when students are expected to attend the virtual classroom and submit work.
What an online college classroom looks like
An online college student will be working with a computer and online modules to handle all their needs. Some of the more typical modules are:
- Assignments: the page where the instructor lists projects and due dates, tutorials and instructions on how to complete and submit work, and other information
- Blog: For news
- Discussion boards: The student forum to discuss assignments and the course itself with fellow students
- Grades: Page showing grades for assignments and exams
- Inbox: The message center to communicate via email and messages with faculty or the instructor
Financial aid for online education
If your online university is accredited, you may qualify for the same financial aid as you would for a traditional college. Start by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on or after October 1st every year.
[Read: Best Student Loans in 2020]
Besides applying for FAFSA, you may check for grants and scholarships by looking at websites for scholarships you may apply for, such as:
How to save the most when choosing an online college
To save money on your online college choice, look for schools providing scholarships and grants that may apply to you. Check and see if the school you’re interested in allows you to earn credits for life, work or military service. All you may need to do is take a test to show your proficiency. You could get awarded credits that will get you closer to graduating for less by saving you from taking certain courses required for your degree.
[Read: Student Loan Forgiveness]
How to choose the online college program for you
- Research what career you think you’d like to pursue
- Find online schools that offer the major you’re interested in
- To confirm the schools you’re interested in are legitimate, make sure they’re accredited
- Compare your choices according to tuition cost, graduation rate, whether classes are on-demand or live, if financial aid is offered and types of student support services
- Narrow your choices down to your favorite (between three and five)
- Call the schools to get to know more about how their distance learning program works and take notes
- Read student reviews from websites such as Niche