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The Cost of Higher Education: Online Schools vs. Traditional Schools


The cost of higher education is steep and steadily rising. Students looking to pursue a degree without miring themselves in prohibitive debt often forgo the traditional model of college in favor of a virtual alternative. While online education is perceived by many as a more affordable way to earn a degree, this is a generalization that sometimes proves inaccurate. As you determine whether or not online education is best for you, incorporate a realistic cost analysis into your research.

The Costs of Traditional Education

According to the not-for-profit College Board, an organization that in addition to running the S.A.T. program dedicates itself to fostering connections between students and schools, college prices are on the rise. In the 2009-2010 school year tuition at both public and private colleges increased at a rate beyond inflation. The average tuition for a private four-year education rose to approximately $26,000 per year; the average tuition for a public four-year education rose to approximately $7,000 per year; and the average tuition for a public two-year education is up to approximately $2500 per year. Add to this an increase in room and board, books, supplies, and fees. For students who enroll in out-of-state colleges, the College Board reports an average surcharge of about $11,000. Despite billions of dollars in financial aid available to students, costs remain a concern.

The Costs of Online Education

There are certain expenses that don’t factor into the overall cost of an online education, such as room and board, commuting, parking, and ancillary fees attached to the traditional university experience. Yet, online college costs are not automatically less than that of traditional brick-and-mortar colleges. In terms of strict tuition, and given the variable of books and supplies, students may find online and traditional schools closer in cost after thorough comparison. In order to accurately estimate the cost of an online degree take the following factors into consideration.

  • Type of Degree - The higher level of degree, the higher the cost. Associate degrees are typically the least expensive degree, followed by bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees, respectively.
  • Quality of Education - Like many things in life, higher costs often indicate higher quality. Be cautious of bargains. Accredited institutions that are home to qualified professors and reputable programs may incur higher costs, but to your educational benefit.
  • Tuition Rates - Tuition is not calculated the same way at every school. Take careful note of whether tuition is priced by the credit hour or by class. The differential can be significant and miscalculation can undermine your efforts in properly projecting college expense.
  • Additional Fees - Courses often require supplemental learning resources, adding to the overall cost of education. Take note that online education has not rendered the textbook obsolete: textbooks are still primary learning tools for online students.

Tuition rates are usually provided online or in application literature. Other fees may require some due diligence depending on your anticipated program and course schedule.

Salary Predictions

Education can be an investment. For many people, a degree results in a more valuable and competitive position in the job market: promotion within a company, mobility within an industry, a higher base salary and rate of increase. According to sources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, employees with a college degree tend to earn more money and face less unemployment than coworkers without the advantage of higher education. Typically, the higher the degree, the higher the monetary benefit over the course of your working life.

The question is whether an online degree yields the same salary return as a traditional degree. An accurate answer requires years and, ultimately, a uniform and unbiased analysis of data that is today pretty raw. The reputation of online education is improving and more employers are slowly beginning to reward on the basis of online degrees just as they would traditional degrees. That said, not all online degrees are created equal. Students should choose an accredited institution and ensure that a degree program matches up to professional requisites.

  • "2009-2001 College Prices", The College Board (
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics (
  • U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (
  • "Online Degrees Earning Respect--to a degree", Eve Tahmmincioglu, (

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Disclosure: Not all programs are accelerated, available in all locations, or in both online and on-campus formats. The transferability of credits is subject to each school's transfer credit policy. Financial aid including grants, scholarships and loans may be available to those who qualify. Program lengths and outcomes vary according to each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guaranteed. CompareTopSchools is a consumer information site that offers free ratings and recommendations of colleges and universities. We are an advertising-supported service and receive compensation from many of the schools that appear on our site. Compensation may impact which schools we rate and recommend and where those schools appear. CompareTopSchools takes into consideration several proprietary rules to determine how and where schools appear on our website. All opinions expressed on this site are our own, including, without limitation, our designation of a particular institution as being a "top" school.