Are Online College Classes Cheaper for Students?

Usually online tuition is less, but there are other factors to consider

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Many students are interested in online college courses because of what they believe is a lower cost. It's true that some online colleges are inexpensive, but virtual learning isn't always the most cost-effective option. Here's a look at the differences in expenses between online and traditional higher education.

Tuition for College Courses

Tuition for online schools tends to be less expensive than tuition for bricks-and-mortar classes. Online schools have fewer expenses for maintaining buildings and grounds than do traditional institutions and can pass those savings on to students. A student taking online classes at a traditional college usually pays the same tuition as a student learning in classrooms, in part because of the higher maintenance costs.

Also, some online schools provide a tiered tuition option in which the per-credit rate decreases if students enroll in more credit hours. And some online students can take advantage of in-state tuition even if they reside out of state.

Fees for College Courses

Many traditional colleges require students to pay an extra fee on top of their regular tuition when enrolling in an online class. Colleges justify the extra expense as part of the infrastructure and administration of online courses. They use the money to cover such expenses as separate online learning offices that offer online curriculum development assistance and for 24/7 tech support to the instructors and students.

Additionally, many students pay higher fees simply because they are spending more time at school. Traditional colleges usually include fees as part of the total tuition package. Because the fees are wrapped up in tuition, students may not realize that traditional programs often assess more fees than do online programs. In addition to technology, these fees can include campus security, campus recreation, student health, athletics, student legal services, and student organizations.

Costs for Room and Board

Since online-only students live off-campus, they usually can find cheaper housing costs, especially if they live with their parents. Meals are cheaper when they're cooked at home instead of purchased from restaurants or even cafeterias. If students live off-campus but commute to a traditional school, there are transportation costs—gasoline, parking, bus fare, etc.

Opportunity Costs

In comparing online and traditional colleges, don't forget to add opportunity costs to the equation. Many students are willing to pay more for an opportunity that isn't available elsewhere. For example, students might be willing to pay extra for online courses so they have flexible working hours. Other students might be willing to pay extra for traditional courses so they can network in person, have access to a research library, and enjoy school activities.

College Quality

Quality is another factor when it comes to deciding between online college and traditional college. It's possible for online colleges, particularly state-funded schools, to offer deals. But be wary of virtual schools that are priced ridiculously low. Ensure that an online or traditional college program is properly accredited before writing your check.

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Littlefield, Jamie. "Are Online College Classes Cheaper for Students?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Littlefield, Jamie. (2021, February 16). Are Online College Classes Cheaper for Students? Retrieved from Littlefield, Jamie. "Are Online College Classes Cheaper for Students?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).