Comparing the Costs of Online vs. On-Campus Programs

Comparing the Costs of Online vs. On-Campus Programs
portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
By Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

Published on April 13, 2021

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As tuition costs continue to climb, one of your biggest concerns about going to college may be the price. In the past 20 years, tuition and fees increased an average of 144% at private universities and 212% at public, in-state universities in the U.S.

The COVID-19 pandemic — and the resulting shift from on-campus to remote and online learning — brings new relevance to the larger issue of college affordability. It also raises questions about how and why costs differ for online versus on-campus programs.

Colleges are rarely transparent about the processes they use to determine tuition rates. Here, we introduce several factors to be aware of as you prepare to make your college decisions.

Why Costs Differ Between Online and On-Campus Programs

Although online and on-campus programs share many administrative expenses, such as faculty and staff payrolls, there are some key differences in operational costs to consider.

It's probably no surprise that online programs have robust and ongoing technological needs. Learning management systems, IT help desks, and online student support services in the form of academic advising, tutoring, and career counseling all require a technological infrastructure that can be expensive to implement and keep up to date.

Online programs have robust and ongoing technological needs. Some of these technological expenses may apply to on-campus programs.

The design, development, and maintenance of high-quality, interactive online courses can also cost more than that of on-campus courses.

Some of these technological expenses may apply to on-campus programs. Campus-based programs must also account for a variety of physical infrastructure costs related to classrooms and offices, security, utilities, labs, dining halls, sports, gym facilities, and more. Such costs are ongoing, even for campuses that offer online classes or programs.

Cost Comparison: Online vs. On-Campus Programs

Online and on-campus students have similar expenses to consider, including tuition, fees, and class materials. These expenses can vary, however, depending on whether classes take place online or on campus.


Tuition typically comprises the bulk of what's often referred to as "college cost." The average total program tuition for online bachelor's degree programs is anywhere between $38,496 and $60,593. Meanwhile, average tuition and fees for a four-year program at a traditional college range from $38,748 (public, in-state) to $140,348 (private).


A somewhat generic term in the context of college costs, fees pertain to a variety of expenses, such as activities and programs, lab access, transportation, sports, health and fitness facilities, technology, registration, graduation, and more.

Fees are typically charged per term and can add up quickly. Some schools provide waivers to online students for campus-related fees, but not always.

Books and Supplies

In addition to costs associated with the college and program you choose, think about the learning materials you'll need to buy.

Textbooks, for example, are notoriously expensive. While some research shows that prices are dropping, you should still plan for these materials in your college budget. During the 2018-19 academic year, college students spent an average of $415 on class supplies.

Online students need a reliable computer and internet connection to participate in their classes. They may also have additional costs related to online science lab kits ($30-$200 per lesson) and exam proctoring services ($7-$25 per exam).

Textbook and supply costs will vary depending on the types of courses you're taking and their method of delivery.

Additional Factors That Can Impact the Cost of College

Several factors can affect the overall cost of online and on-campus programs. As you research your options, it's helpful to think about the difference between an institution's sticker price (i.e., the cost that's advertised) and the net price (i.e., the sticker price minus any scholarships, grants, and other aid).

Scholarships and Financial Aid

As college tuition has increased, so, too, has the value of scholarships and grants. While online students are eligible for many of these funding opportunities, they may not have access to all of the resources available to their on-campus counterparts. Scholarships and grants are important for you to research as you develop an estimate of what your college costs will be.

Like traditional students, online students typically qualify for federal financial aid. No matter your program's format, you'll start the process with the FAFSA. If you're interested in applying for assistance with an online program, connect with admissions and financial aid counselors at your prospective schools to learn more.

State Residency

Private colleges generally charge all students, regardless of their location or state of residency, the same tuition rate. Public colleges, however, typically maintain separate rates for out-of-state and in-state students. Students who reside in the state where the college is located usually pay lower tuition.

Online students need to take into account additional considerations. For example, what happens if you live in one state and enroll in an online program offered by a college in another state?

Some universities have separate tuition rates for online classes for all students, no matter their location, whereas other schools offer in-state tuition to all online students.

Living Expenses

In some comparisons of the cost of a college education earned online versus on campus, you'll find entries for food, housing, transportation, and related expenses. All students typically encounter these, whether they're living on their own or on campus, unless someone else is providing this kind of support, such as if you're living with your parent(s).

Living expenses vary widely by location and by individual circumstances. Take time to calculate your living expenses and include these in your college budgeting.

Are Online Programs Cheaper Than On-Campus Programs?

It's a common misconception that online programs are always less expensive than on-campus programs.

The 2020 CHLOE 4 report from Quality Matters and Eduventures Research found that most schools charge around the same tuition rates for online and campus-based programs. The study also found that 16% of schools always or generally have higher rates for online programs.

A 2020 report found that most schools charge around the same tuition rates for online and campus-based programs.

If you're deciding between online and on-campus programs, compare your options with careful attention to how costs are calculated and advertised — whether that's by credit hour, by course, by academic term, annually, or by total program — as well as the availability of in-state rates.

Be sure you also explore your eligibility for funding opportunities, start saving for college, and look for ways to make college as affordable as possible. Your decision should ultimately reflect your unique combination of needs and resources.

Feature Image: ljubaphoto / E+ / Getty Images

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