Online community colleges offer affordable, two-year degrees for students who cannot commute to campus, or for those who prefer to study remotely. Attending an online community college provides several benefits, particularly for students who work or provide full-time care for their children. Most schools deliver coursework asynchronously, allowing distance learners to study and complete assignments at their convenience.

When calculating college affordability, students must compare the cost of attendance with their potential return on investment. Attending a cheap online community college, in terms of tuition, can help you save money in the short-term, but students should find a school that also offers academically reputable programming. Fortunately, students can choose from hundreds of affordable online community colleges around the country -- schools that offer a quality education at a reasonable price. An affordable school can help you reduce out-of-pocket educational costs and increase your chances of transferring to a four-year program or finding gainful employment upon graduation. Attending an affordable school also limits how much you need to borrow to finance your education.

The ranking below lists schools according to our college affordability score. This holistic measurement evaluates the amount of financial aid given to students, the number of students taking out loans, and the percentage of students who can repay their loans after graduating. Looking at a school's college affordability score can help you distinguish between cheap online community colleges and affordable online community colleges that offer a good value.

Rank School Cost Receiving Loans Description Toggle
1 Wayne Community College Goldsboro, NC Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 4%

Wayne Community College offers nine degrees programs completely online. Online courses are delivered through Moodle, a customized course-management platform. Students also have access to Webadvisor, an online platform that hosts course materials, grades, and course registration. The school offers grants and scholarships to qualified students. Although student loans are available, a relatively low percentage of Wayne students borrow money to pay for their education.

In addition to the nine degree programs available online, Wayne Community college also offers online certificates, diploma programs, and continuing-education courses. Business administration is one of the school’s most popular online degrees; other popular programs include emergency management technology and criminal justice technology. Distance learners use WCCMail to communicate with instructors and peers, and tech support is available through the school’s technology department.

2 McHenry County College Crystal Lake, IL Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 11%

McHenry County College offers several degrees entirely online. The school’s associate in general education degree provides students an opportunity to complete their general-education requirements without choosing a major. Career and technical degrees are also available in computer information systems, criminal justice, and several business concentrations. Each class is limited to just 25 students, allowing students to benefit from a low student-to-teacher ratio.

McHenry also offers several hybrid courses that feature a mixture of in-person and online components.

Students can pursue federal grants and loans, and the school also offers nearly 100 scholarships. Distance learners can qualify for financial assistance by filling out the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) and submitting a separate scholarship application.

3 Cochise County Community College District Douglas, AZ Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 7%

Cochise College features a robust distance-learning program. Through the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, Cochise County allows students from other states to enroll in online programs. The virtual campus began offering online classes in 1998, and now has 12 online degrees and a Linux Administrator certificate program. Popular programs include psychology, economics, humanities, and social work.

One of Cochise’s most interesting programs is its associate of applied science (AAS) in intelligence operations, a degree that targets students interested in military intelligence or private intelligence companies.

Eligible students can pursue federal and state financial aid. Scholarships are also available through the Cochise College Foundation. Many are awarded based on academic achievement, although there are several need-based scholarships available as well. To qualify, students must use the STARS application system to submit their qualifications. Scholarship recipients are expected to write thank-you letters to their donors before receiving any funds.

4 Prince George's Community College Largo, MD Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 21%

Prince George offers six online degree programs and four online certificates. General studies students can pursue concentrations in economics, pre-law, criminal justice, and psychology. All online students must complete a general orientation before accessing Blackboard. Beyond traditional classes, PGCC also offers video-enhanced online courses and accelerated online tracks. Accelerated courses contain the same material as regular classes, but simply start later or end earlier than other online classes.

Students who demonstrate financial need are eligible for need-based grants and scholarships. Loans are available to students who meet federal eligibility requirements. Scholarships are also available based on academic achievement, and the school offers a deferred tuition plan with flexible payment options. Using the deferred tuition plan, students can pay their tuition in two, three, or four separate payments.

5 Norwalk Community College Norwalk, CT Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 1%

Norwalk Community College has more than 50 academic programs, most of which feature online classes. In addition to traditional degrees in business and technology, Norwalk offers programs in anthropology and archaeology, film, and interior design. All distance courses are taught asynchronously. Online students have access to online tutoring and other campus resources.

Live tutoring is available through an interactive online environment; distance learners can also post questions for tutors and receive a response within 48 hours. Online students also have access to the online writing lab, where writing tutors offer feedback on drafts, helping students improve their writing skills.

Students who meet federal eligibility requirements may receive loans or grants to defray the cost of their education. The school also participates in the federal work-study program, which allows students to reduce their educational expenses by working on-campus.

6 Community College of Allegheny County Pittsburgh, PA Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 22%

At the Community College of Allegheny County, students can pursue one of 14 online degrees or 13 online certificates. These programs are offered entirely online. Degrees are available in business, education, social and behavioral sciences, and science and mathematics. Available certificates include homeland security, women’s studies, and digital design.

The college also offers several accelerated programs for students interested in immediate employment. Accelerated programs are available in computer forensics, paralegal studies, and software development. All online course materials are delivered through Blackboard.

CCAC offers low tuition and strong financial aid packages, and the school boasts a low student-default rate. Students who qualify for state and federal aid may receive PHEAA state grants, federal Pell or FESOG grants, or federal Stafford loans. Scholarships are also available based on academic merit and financial need.

7 El Paso Community College El Paso, TX Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 5%

El Paso CC offers traditional college courses and continuing education classes in an online format, delivered through the Blackboard course-management system. Continuing education courses help students learn new skills for the workforce. Real estate investing, administrative assistant fundamentals, and effective business writing are just three of the school’s popular programs. All continuing education courses are delivered via Education 2 Go.

EPCC is also affiliated with the Virtual College of Texas, which allows students to register for online courses offered by other colleges in Texas.

In addition to federal and state aid, El Paso offers scholarships and emergency loans for eligible students. Short-term emergency loans are available to students who need help paying their tuition before classes begin. There is no interest on these loans, but all funds must be repaid. Scholarships are proffered based on financial need and academic merit; departmental scholarships are also available.

8 Lehigh Carbon Community College Schnecksville, PA Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 29%

Lehigh Carbon offers 21 fully online programs, including business, education, liberal arts, and special education. The school also has four programs in which 80% of required courses are available online: psychology, early childhood education, medical billing specialist certificate, and health information technology. All courses are delivered through WebStudy, an online course-management system. LCCC also offers tutoring and a writing help program for distance learners.

Students interested in federal financial aid should file the FAFSA between January 1 and May 1 of each year. Lehigh Carbon offers a variety of payment plans to students who are waiting for their financial aid applications to be processed. Online payment plans are also available for students paying their tuition in cash. Fall tuition is payable in four installments, while spring tuition is payable in three.

9 Bucks County Community College Newtown, PA Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 17%

Bucks County’s virtual campus offers 13 degrees and three certificates entirely online. Associate degrees are available in entrepreneurship, occupational studies, retail management, and other disciplines. Available certificate programs include historic preservation, bookkeeping, and office skills. Students enrolled in online courses have 24/7 access to the digital campus library and tutoring center. All students also have access to academic advising and career services.

Bucks County CC offers affordable tuition and several forms of financial aid to qualifying students. Anyone interested in enrolling in online courses at BCCC should complete the FAFSA and then apply for private scholarships through the financial aid office. Students who are willing to work on campus may also qualify for federal work-study programs. BCCC awards more than $20 million in financial aid to students each year.

10 Holmes Community College Goodman, MS Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 21%

Holmes offers a variety of online courses, delivered through the Canvas learning management platform. Students in need of technical assistance have access to the 24/7 Canvas Online Support Center; assistance is available over the phone and through live chat. Holmes also uses the Community College Network to deliver courses to registered students: The CCN is an interactive video network that links students at community colleges throughout Mississippi. Using CCN, students discuss course content and share ideas.

The financial aid office has several programs available to help distance learners. Federal loans, state and federal grants, and state scholarships are available to students who meet minimum eligibility requirements. Students who can travel to the school may also participate in the federal work-study program, which reimburses them for work done on campus.

11 Westmoreland County Community College Youngwood, PA Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 33%

Westmoreland County CC offers a comprehensive distance learning program, delivered through Blackboard or web conferencing software. Most courses are taught asynchronously, although web conference-based classes require scheduled participation. Like other online community colleges, WCCC also offers hybrid courses featuring a combination of distance and classroom-based classes.

State and federal aid is available through loans and grants. Located in Pennsylvania, qualifying students can also apply for state-based grant programs for students who are deaf or blind. The college also offers private scholarships, drawing from funds donated by faculty members, alumni, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and board members. Most scholarships are awarded based on academic merit or financial need, but some are earmarked for students who meet special circumstances.

12 Metropolitan Community College Area Omaha, NE Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 15%

Metropolitan CC offers a variety of online and hybrid courses and programs. All online classes are delivered asynchronously through Blackboard. Online students are required to complete the Blackboard student orientation before starting school. Distance learners have access to the learning & tutoring center, and staff members can help students resolve common technical issues.

Several online courses are offered in an accelerated format. Accelerated courses feature the same course content, but the course starts later or ends earlier than the regular academic term. Accelerated courses are available in art history, entrepreneurship, abnormal psychology, and other topics.

Due to the low cost of attendance and availability of financial aid, MCC is one of the most affordable online schools in the country. In addition to federal and state aid, MCC also offers merit- and need-based scholarships.

13 Craven Community College New Bern, NC Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 24%

Craven Community College offers nine online degrees and several diploma and certificate programs. The school offers associate degrees in general education, applied science, and the arts online. Diplomas and certificates are also available in payroll accounting, medical office administration, and banking. Distance learners have access to the campus writing lab and an online tutoring platform called Smarthinking. The Craven help desk is available to help students resolve all technical issues. All online courses are delivered via Moodle, though some instructors also use Google tools in their courses.

Craven CC offers federal student aid, state assistance, and private scholarships to eligible students. After completing the FAFSA, students must provide requested documentation to financial aid counselors before receiving their award. Scholarship applicants also benefit from Craven’s partnership with AcademicWorks, a scholarship application system. Through the program, students can complete one application and simultaneously apply for more than 80 scholarships. AcademicWorks also provides information on external scholarships.

14 Massasoit Community College Brockton, MA Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 17%

Students at Massasoit CC have access to eight online degree and certificate programs; the school also offers several programs partially online. All students have access to online tutoring services and assistance from the online writing lab.

Like most online community colleges, Massasoit CC offers federal and state aid to qualifying students. The school also provides scholarships to select first-time college students and transfer students. To apply for scholarships, distance learners must log in with their MyMassasoit accounts and complete the general scholarship application. Available scholarships include the F.A. Davis Nursing Scholarship, Kelly & Soto Law Scholarship Program, and the Caribbean Heritage Association Scholarship.

15 Bunker Hill Community College Boston, MA Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 8%

Bunker Hill CC offers eight degree programs entirely online. Many students pursue a general education associate degree, where they take prerequisite courses as they prepare to transfer to a four-year school. Online degrees are also available in criminal justice, sociology, and psychology. Bunker Hill offers all general-education courses online.

Students interested in preparing for careers in criminal justice, healthcare, and business can pursue their certificate online. All online students have access to Smarthinking’s online tutoring service, online advising services, and online career counseling.

16 Coastline Community College Fountain Valley, CA Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 4%

Coastline CC offers 19 degrees, 11 certificates of achievement, and two certificates of specialization entirely online. Associate programs include gerontology, sociology, and American studies. The school’s certificate programs help students learn practical job skills that they can apply immediately. Certificates are available in business, accounting, office support, and other disciplines.

All course content is delivered online, though some instructors require students to take tests at proctored exam sites. Coastline also offers video courses for students who do not have regular Internet access. Students enrolled in video courses must submit their assignment by fax or postal mail.

Coastline awards grants and loans to eligible students. Certain California students also have the option of applying for a tuition waiver to reduce their cost of attendance. To continue qualifying for the fee waiver, students must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0 and successfully complete more than half of all coursework attempted each term. Fee waivers are available to students who qualify for federal aid, students whose parents are receiving state or federal assistance, and those who fit into the qualifying income bracket.

17 East Arkansas Community College Forrest City, AR Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 5%

At Eastern Arkansas, online courses are available in the humanities, math, business, and allied health. Most exams are given online, but some instructors require students to commute for tests and quizzes; non-local students may be allowed to take proctored exams at approved testing centers.

All online courses have the same schedule as traditional courses, with classes beginning and ending on the same dates each term (the classes themselves are offered in an asynchronous format). Students enrolled in online courses receive classroom access on the first day of the semester.

Eligible students may be awarded grants, loans, or scholarships to cover their expenses. Private scholarships are typically awarded based on academic achievement; need-based and departmental scholarships are also available.

18 Collin County Community College District McKinney, TX Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 17%

Collin College offers three types of online courses to meet student demands: web classes, hybrid courses, and blended modules. Web classes are offered entirely online, while hybrid classes mix on-campus instruction with some online components. Blended classes are taught mostly online, but students have to visit campus for speeches, orientation sessions, or tests.

Distance learners in all three have access to CougarWeb, the school’s online portal for course registration, and the Blackboard course-management software. Technical assistance is available through the Collin College help desk and the school’s academic technology & network services department.

Students should apply for financial aid before the April 1 and November 1 priority deadlines. Collin College has several scholarships available to students who meet eligibility requirements, including SMART scholarships for students interested in science and technology.

19 Northampton County Area Community College Bethlehem, PA Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 24%

NCC offers 10 degrees entirely online, including associate programs in accounting, criminal justice, and sports management. Traditional students can also supplement their on-campus courses with online classes across a variety of disciplines. To promote academic integrity, NCC requires online students to create a biometric signature ID. Students must enter their biometric IDs several times during each course. Some instructors require distance learners to take a proctored test.

Grants, loans, and work-study assignments help make NCC affordable. The school also awards more scholarships than any other community college in Pennsylvania. Students can pursue merit-based or need-based scholarships; scholarships for veterans are also available.

20 Chandler-Gilbert Community College Chandler, AZ Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 15%

Part of the Maricopa Community College District, Chandler-Gilbert offers online courses to students throughout Arizona. Although the school does not offer any degrees entirely online, students can take a variety of online courses. Some courses are delivered completely over the Internet, while others are offered in a hybrid format. Distance learners can access online tutoring through Smarthinking, a 24/7 tutoring service. All online courses are managed via Canvas platform.

Scholarships are available for students interested in administration justice studies and law-enforcement training. The Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation also provides scholarships to students who meet certain eligibility requirements. Students who do not receive scholarships may qualify for state or federal financial aid in the form of loans or grants. CGCC also participates in the federal work-study program.

21 Northwest Vista College San Antonio, TX Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 6%

Northwest Vista College offers fully online and hybrid courses through the Canvas learning management platform. NVC is also part of the Virtual College of Texas, which provides students the opportunity to enroll in online courses offered by other colleges in the network. The school estimates that online students should spend about 10 hours per week on their studies, per course.

NVC offers several forms of financial aid and a fairly low tuition rate. State aid is available in the form of TPED, TEOG, TEXAS grants, and Hazlewood awards. Students who qualify for federal aid may also receive Pell grants, FSEOG grants, or Stafford loans. Scholarship funds are available through the Alamo Colleges Foundation, along with several external sources.

22 Cuyahoga Community College District Cleveland, OH Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 26%

Cuyahoga Community College has seven online degree and certificate programs. Students can pursue online degrees in business management and court reporting, along with distance certificates in supply chain management and court reporting technology. Several other programs, including the popular associate of applied business in administrative office systems, are available mostly online, with a few in-person requirements.

CCC offers online courses to students from states belonging to the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement. All online courses are delivered through Blackboard.

Students are encouraged to pursue scholarships, grants, and loans. Eligible students may also be able to work on campus and use the money they earn to pay their tuition and related expenses. Scholarships are available to students based on their academic achievement, athletic skills, creative talents, and participation in extracurricular activities. The school also has scholarships available for honors distance learners.

23 College of Southern Maryland La Plata, MD Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 12%

Online courses at Southern Maryland are taught by the same instructors that teach on-campus classes. CSM offers a variety of courses entirely online, along with several hybrid courses and web-enhanced classes. The school offers 12 fully online degrees and nine online certificates to first-time college students, transfer students, and adult learners. Degrees are available in mathematics and physical sciences, technical management, and web development. Online course content is delivered through Blackboard.

All students must complete a FAFSA to be eligible for the school’s scholarship research tool. Students who do not qualify for state or federal assistance may qualify for scholarships based on academic achievement or financial need.

24 Allen County Community College Iola, KS Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 27%

Allen Community College offers flexible online options to help students complete their degrees as soon as possible. Online courses are available for anthropology, business administration, and other two-year degrees. Allen also has certificates available in corrections, pharmacy technician, addictions counseling, and meat and livestock evaluation. Through the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, out-of-state students from fellow member-states can enroll in online courses at Allen. More than 90% of Allen students say they would recommend the school’s online courses to their friends or family members.

Allen Community College is a cheap community college because it has a fairly low net cost of attendance and offers millions of dollars in financial aid to eligible students. In addition to federal and state aid, the school offers the presidential scholarship, dean’s academic scholarship, and merit academic scholarship for academic achievement. Scholarships are also available for student athletes employees enrolled in Allen courses, adult learners, and students who can demonstrate financial need.

Cost: $$$$$ Receiving Loans: 27%

Tillamook Bay offers a variety of online programs and classes for distance learners. Popular online degrees include business, economics, computer applications, biology, and several liberal arts programs. Distance learners can also pursue a variety of continuing education and hybrid courses as well. The school uses Moodle to facilitate all online content.

Students can pursue all of the usual financial aid options at Tillamook Bay. All distance learners should fill out a FAFSA, and they are encouraged to apply for grants and, if necessary, loans. Scholarships are available, as are separate awards for veterans.

This section details the different costs encountered while earning a degree at accredited online community colleges, as well as the differences between on-campus and online schools and in-state and out-of-state institutions. Price varies by individual college, so students should confirm tuition details with their prospective schools before pursuing admission.

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Colleges

Community colleges emphasize career-relevant education, offering smaller classes and lower costs than most four-year institutions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, community college tuition prices have been lower than those of four-year schools for at least the last 30 years. During the 2015-2016 academic year, community college students paid an average of $10,432, while learners at four-year schools paid $26,412. The table below contains more recent data, focusing on public institutions.

On top of relatively affordable tuition, community colleges provide flexible scheduling -- by offering weeknight, weekend, and remote classes -- that caters to their student population, the majority of whom hold full-time jobs. While some students can obtain lucrative entry-level jobs with an associate degree, community colleges also focus on helping students pursue advanced academics. Through partnerships with state universities, many two-year schools enable graduates to easily transfer into bachelor's programs, applying most or all of their credits toward a four-year degree. Students seeking increased flexibility and savings can also take advantage of distance education opportunities at community colleges.

  Public Two-Year In-District Public Four-Year In-State
2017-2018 $3,560 $9,980
2018-2019 $3,660 $10,230

Source: CollegeBoard

Online vs. On-Campus Community Colleges

Many students who take online community college classes pay low tuition prices. As an example, the table below displays rates for learners at Shoreline Community College. In-state students (both online and on-campus) pay $148.83 per credit, while out-of-state distance learners pay $14 more. Alternatively, on-campus nonresidents pay a much higher price -- nearly double the in-state rate. However, some two-year schools attract online students by offering flat tuition rates that ignore residency status.

In addition to spending less on tuition, distance learners can also save money on housing. College Board recently reported that in-district community college students paid an average of $8,660 for room and board during the 2018-2019 academic year. This price represents a 2.1% increase from the previous year. By living at home or splitting rent with roommates, online students can cut down on costs. Furthermore, taking classes remotely means learners rarely need to commute to campus, saving time and additional funds.

Credit Price Per Quarter (2018-19) Resident Online (Nonresident) On Campus (Nonresident)
1 credit $148.83 $162.97 $239.71
5 credits $608.15 $678.85 $1,062.55
12 credits (full time) $1,291.10 $1,425.18 $2,207.48

Source: Shoreline.edu

In-State vs. Out-of-State Community Colleges

Public two- and four-year schools routinely charge out-of-state students higher tuition rates than those paid by in-state learners. Public colleges and universities receive state funds to offset costs that nonresidents cannot access. This price difference is often substantial.

Online students who want to attend an out-of-state school can bypass this type of upcharge in three ways. First, they can enroll in a distance education program that offers the same tuition rate to all students. They can also relocate and apply for residency status; however, this process requires a student to live in their new state for at least 12 months. Additional requirements may include a permanent address, driver's license, and voter registration. Finally, distance learners can take advantage of regional reciprocity agreements, accessing in-state or discounted tuition at schools in partnering states. Major programs include the Western Undergraduate Exchange, the Midwest Student Exchange, and the Southern Regional Education Board's Academic Common Market.

Hidden Fees for Online Learners

For students attending community colleges, online degrees come with additional costs beyond tuition. While distance learners save on commuting and accommodations, they may need to pay fees related to technology, registration, and textbooks. Some online programs also require students to visit campus for orientation, practicum experiences, and graduation -- resulting in additional costs.

  • Assessment Fees: Schools use "assessment" as an umbrella term for a variety of fees, including those related to first-time enrollment, late registration, class withdrawal, libraries, and sport facilities. Students may also need to pay an assessment fee if they want to receive transfer credits based on standardized test scores.
  • Graduation Fees: Regardless of whether or not they plan on attending commencement, students may need to pay a one-time graduation fee. This fee covers a student's diploma, but it does not include the cost of renting a cap and gown.
  • Technology Fees: Sometimes referred to as a "distance learning delivery fee," this charge covers the maintenance of a school's online education software, like Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle. These fees also pay for online textbooks and information technology services.
  • Required Travel Fees: Not all distance education options deliver coursework entirely online. Some programs, especially those at the graduate level, require students to attend orientation sessions and residency training. However, some schools offer travel grants to help offset these costs.

To earn a valid degree, students need to attend an accredited online community college. Schools obtain accreditation through organizations overseen by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). As academia's quality assurance system, accreditation reflects that a school adheres to certain educational, research, and professional standards.

The ED collects educational data, helps establish academic standards, and works with accrediting agencies to ensure that schools maintain these standards. With a history dating back to 1974, CHEA is a non-government collective of more than 3,000 institutional members dedicated to self-regulating academic quality. CHEA oversees national, regional, and programmatic accreditation agencies. Without the appropriate accreditation, colleges and universities cannot access federal funding. Students can explore lists of accredited schools by visiting the ED website or the CHEA website.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

Community colleges can earn accreditation at the national or regional level. In most instances, regional accreditation is considered more prestigious, and regionally accredited schools usually only accept transfer credits earned at other regionally accredited institutions.

Fortunately, regionally accredited online community colleges far outnumber nationally accredited institutions. Schools obtain regional accreditation from one of seven organizations, depending on location. For example, Texas institutions work with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, while Michigan schools earn regional accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission. In addition to visiting the databases mentioned in the previous section, students can confirm a school's accreditation status by talking with an admissions adviser.

Programmatic Accreditation

Individual programs at online community colleges can also obtain specialized recognition. Known as programmatic accreditation, this stamp of approval acknowledges that a program teaches individuals the necessary knowledge and skills needed to pursue work in a specific field or industry. While not always necessary or applicable, programmatic accreditation helps ensure that students enjoy full recognition by future employers and professional organizations. It also helps graduates pursue certain types of certification and licensure.

Programmatic accreditation exists for many different fields. Engineering programs earn recognition from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, while business schools can receive accreditation from either the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business or the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs. Additionally, many nursing programs earn accreditation from the Accreditation Commission For Education in Nursing.

An associate degree enables students to access more job opportunities and better pay compared to workers who only hold a high school diploma or GED. According to 2017 employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), associate degree holders earn $124 more per week than professionals who possess only a high school diploma. BLS data also shows that individuals with an associate degree benefit from a lower unemployment rate (3.4%) than workers with only a high school diploma (4.6%).

The table below aggregates information from PayScale and details the 10 highest-paying fields for associate degree holders, including average early- and mid-career salaries. Some of these pay rates compare favorably to jobs that typically require a bachelor's degree.

The Highest-Paying Majors for Associate Degree-Holders
Major Early-Career Pay Mid-Career Pay
Instrumentation Technology $42,900 $92,500
Radiation Therapy $57,900 $87,500
Management Information Systems $44,200 $78,800
Nuclear Medicine Technology $57,900 $74,600
Construction Management $43,100 $73,400
Electrical Engineering $41,500 $73,200
Electrical Engineering Technology $41,900 $72,600
Engineering $39,700 $72,500
Economics $35,500 $72,400
Nursing Science $54,900 $72,400

Source: PayScale.com

Even with relatively affordable tuition, online associate degrees still require a significant investment of time and money. Fortunately, distance learners can take advantage of many financial aid opportunities. Options include government-based funding, institutional awards, loans, and private scholarships and grants.

Financial Aid Awarded to Students in Two-Year Colleges (2014-15)
  Federal Grants State/Local Grant Institutional Grants Student Loans
Percent of Enrolled Students Awarded Aid 55.6% 39% 12.4% 22.9%
Average Award for Students in Aid Program $4,505 $1,840 $2,031 $4,603

Source: NCES

Filling Out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid

Distributed by the ED, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) helps students find out what types of federal grants, loans, and work-study opportunities they qualify for. Students must submit the FAFSA every year if they want to continue to receive funding. Students can submit their applications as early as October 1 for the next academic year, and the submission deadline falls on June 30.

The FAFSA determines a student's financial need by subtracting their expected family contribution (EFC) from their cost of attendance (COA). The FAFSA calculates a student's EFC using a law-established formula that factors in taxed and untaxed income, while colleges and universities generally provide COA information.

To access FAFSA-based awards, candidates must meet basic eligibility criteria, which include U.S. citizenship or acceptable non-citizenship. Unfortunately, this means undocumented individuals cannot use the FAFSA. Applicants must also enroll in an accredited certificate or degree-granting program and maintain satisfactory academic performance. Before filling out the FAFSA, students should make sure to have their social security number, driver's license or state identification, and federal tax information on hand. They also need to furnish records of untaxed income and assets.

Grants

Grants represent aid that students do not need to repay. Unlike scholarships, grants often specifically target underserved and needy students who require financial assistance to achieve their academic and career goals. Learners can access grants from federal and state government agencies. Community college students can also seek out grants from professional associations and nonprofit organizations. In addition to need, criteria may relate to academic performance, field of study, career goals, and identity characteristics like gender and ethnicity.

By filling out the FAFSA, students can find out whether they qualify for several types of grants. Federal Pell Grants serve as the most common and award up to $6,095 per year to undergraduate students earning their first degree. Service Grants support students whose parent or guardian died during military service in Afghanistan or Iraq, and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants assist undergraduates who demonstrate exceptional financial need. Additionally, students who agree to teach in high-need, low-income schools after graduation may access TEACH Grants. The federal government also offers Academic Competitiveness and National SMART Grants to low-income students who major in high-demand fields.

Work-Study Programs

Also facilitated through the FAFSA, work-study programs enable students to obtain employment with their community colleges, partnering universities, or local organizations. The amount of money students earn depends on their school's funding level and their own financial need. Work-study students receive at least the federal minimum wage, but often earn more as long as their annual award lasts. Both part- and full-time learners can access these opportunities.

Work-study positions vary based on availability and student choice. The federal work-study program prioritizes civic engagement and work related to a student's major. For many participants, these positions allow students to pursue research and training that can lead to future projects, internships, fellowships, and even full-fledged careers. Learners who take online community college classes may find work study untenable due to the in-person work obligations. However, they should still speak with an academic adviser and departmental administrator to figure out their options.

Loans

Loans represent awards students must pay back -- usually with interest -- by a designated time. Students who fill out the FAFSA may borrow federal loans, with the ED acting as the lender. Learners can tap into Direct Subsidized Loans to receive up to $5,500 annually. In the case of subsidized loans, the government pays interest as long as students remain enrolled in school, for six months after degree completion, and during special deferment periods (such as when a student works with the Peace Corps or Teach For America). Through the FAFSA, learners can also access Direct Plus Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and Direct Consolidation Loans. Although less common, state governments may also provide student loans.

After students exhaust all other funding options, they can consider private loans through credit unions, banks, and other financial institutions. Lenders evaluate an applicant's credit score when determining their eligibility and loan amount. Before students apply for a private loan, they should determine the initial interest rate, whether a loan is fixed or variable, and when/if the rate capitalizes. Borrowers should also look into repayment plans, tax deductibility, and postponement options. Unlike federal loans, private loans rarely offer subsidization, which means students need to start paying interest as soon as they receive their money.

Scholarships

Like grants, students do not need to repay scholarships. However, unlike grants, scholarships usually reward students for remarkable academic achievement (e.g., based on GPA and standardized test scores), athletic prowess, military service, and/or community service. By submitting their FAFSA, students automatically apply for their school's general awards, like the Dean's and President's Scholarships. Students can also seek out scholarships related to their academic major. In many cases, recipients can renew these awards if they continue to make adequate progress toward graduation.

Community college students can also apply for scholarships offered by community organizations, local businesses, religious institutions, and professional associations. Application requirements may differ drastically, but candidates should prepare to submit academic transcripts, recommendation letters, a resume/CV, and SAT/ACT scores. They may also need to prepare a personal statement explaining why they deserve the scholarship and how the money would help them achieve academic and career goals.

Finding Scholarships

Students can find scholarship opportunities by speaking with their school's admissions counselors and financial aid coordinators. Local libraries and community organizations may also offer helpful financial aid tools. Low-income and first-generation students can apply for assistance from national associations like College Possible, the Education Trust, and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

In addition to the information found on this page, Best Colleges also offers a comprehensive financial aid guide. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor hosts a large scholarship database. Students can also conduct their own online research, starting with awards that directly relate to their identity. For example, the United Negro College Fund supports African Americans, while Golden Door Scholars and TheDream.US provide financial assistance to undocumented learners. The Human Rights Campaign also operates a scholarship database for LGBTQ youth. Additionally, students can search for opportunities based on their academic major, career goals, interests, and geographic location. However, aspiring learners should keep an eye out for scams, avoiding scholarships that guarantee money, ask for highly personal/legal information, or require application fees.

American Indian College Fund Scholarships

Who Can Apply: U.S. and Canadian citizens can apply for these funds. Students must belong to a federally or state-recognized tribe or be the child or grandchild of a tribe member. To apply, candidates need to hold a minimum 2.0 GPA. Students can find application tips, including how to write personal statements, on this link.
Amount: Varies

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Cancer for College Scholarships

Who Can Apply: These awards support students who have been diagnosed with cancer. Candidates must be attending or plan on attending an accredited program located in the U.S. on a full-time basis. Furthermore, the applicant's adjusted gross income (or their family's) must not exceed $150,000 for the most recent tax year.
Amount: Varies

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Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Facilitated by the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, this scholarship fund is open to members currently enrolled in a regionally accredited associate program. Students must be taking at least six credits and possess a minimum 3.5 GPA. The society awards up to 200 scholarships annually, 25 of which target active members of the military and veterans.
Amount: $1,000

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Get Educated Online College Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Candidates must be U.S. citizens enrolled in an accredited online academic program with a minimum 3.0 GPA. To apply, students submit an official application, a copy of their most recent FAFSA, and a copy of their most recent transcripts. They also need to send in a 500-word essay that explains what an online degree means to them.
Amount: $1,000

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Hispanic Scholarship Fund

Who Can Apply: This award goes to community college students who plan to earn a bachelor's degree in any field, although STEM majors may receive preference. Candidates need to demonstrate Hispanic heritage and possess a minimum 2.5 GPA if currently in college (high schoolers must hold a GPA of 3.0 or higher). The program accepts U.S. citizens, permanent legal residents, and DACA or eligible non-citizens.
Amount: $500-$5,000

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Horatio Alger Career and Technical Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This scholarship supports community and technical college students who can demonstrate perseverance in overcoming adversity. Candidates need to hold U.S. citizenship and be under 30 years of age. They also need to demonstrate financial need, including Pell Grant eligibility, as determined by the FAFSA.
Amount: $2,500

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Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund

Who Can Apply: This fund supports low-income women over the age of 35 who want to pursue a regionally accredited associate or technical degree. Candidates need to be U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents. Applicants submit a personal statement detailing their goals, how they plan to achieve them, and ways they give back to their communities.
Amount: $2,000

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Niche Community College Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This award caters to high school students and learners currently enrolled at a two-year school. Candidates must possess U.S. citizenship. To apply, students fill out an online form detailing their academic performance and future goals and submit recommendations. Funds can apply to any education-related expense.
Amount: $500

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Pearson Scholarship for Higher Education

Who Can Apply: This award is open to Phi Theta Kappa members currently enrolled in an accredited associate program. Applicants need to take at least six credits per term and maintain a minimum 3.5 GPA. The program disperses funds over two years. In addition to financial assistance, recipients enjoy the support of a professional academic mentor. The selection committee prioritizes first-generation college students.
Amount: $5,000

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SR Education Group Community College Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This award is available to U.S. citizens, excluding those residing in Rhode Island, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Selection criteria include financial need and academic commitment. Candidates must submit an online application and answer two essay questions.
Amount: $5,000

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  • Adopt Healthy Spending Habits: To cut costs, students should try to develop healthy spending habits. To do this, they can analyze their finances by using applications like Spending Tracker. This app lets users log expenses, build budgets, improve credit, and create visual reports. Students can also manage their online spending habits with apps like Slice, which alerts users to price drops. Finally, students can improve their overall daily behavior with Habitica, an app that gamifies chores and bigger tasks.
  • Use Student Discounts: Online community college students can take advantage of student discounts on computers, software, and professional organization memberships. Additionally, schools often partner with local businesses -- including restaurants, clothing stores, and bookstores -- to provide students with additional savings. Student clubs and campus organizations may provide free events, resources, and food. These gatherings also allow students to better connect with their peers and professors. Distance learners can search for additional discounts online, and websites like International Student Identity Card help learners access savings no matter where they live.
  • Find Inexpensive Textbooks: In addition to tuition and academic fees, students spend substantial amounts of money on textbooks. According to 2018-2019 estimates by College Board, the average in-district community college student spends $1,440 on books and supplies. Distance learners can save on textbooks by using applications like StudentRate Textbooks, which offers coupons and price comparison tools. Students can also rent books from the library. Furthermore, online community college classes often provide access to inexpensive or free eBooks
  • Load Up on Credits: Finally, learners can reduce their higher education costs by simply graduating early. For current high school students, this might mean accumulating Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and/or dual-enrollment credits. Community college students can also hasten graduation by taking maximum course loads every term. They should also determine their major as soon as possible and avoid switching fields. Finally, the most affordable online associate degrees often provide accelerated tracks, enabling students to earn their credentials in just one year.