Cost of Online Education vs. Traditional Education

Last Updated: August 18, 2021 by Melanie Hanson

Report Highlights. For public 4 year colleges, when tuition and the cost of attendance are compared between an online degree and an in-person degree, the online degree is $10,776 cheaper. 

  • Private institutions on average charge $58,560 for an online degree vs $148,800 for an in-person degree.
  • Students who commute to college for in-person classes pay $3,400 per year in transportation costs an online student wouldn’t have to pay. 
  • Students who attend in-person classes pay $1,380 dollars more for a campus meal plan than meals made at home.   
  • The cost of an online degree based on tuition from a public university is roughly $37,920 vs $37,320 for the same degree, in-person. 

Related reports include  | Average Cost of Private School | Cost of a College Class or Credit Hour | Average Cost of College Textbooks | Average Cost of College by State |  Average Cost of College & Tuition

Cost Per Credit Hour of In-Person Instruction vs. Online Instruction

Generally, private schools don’t mark up their programs as highly as public schools do, but the overall cost of attendance is higher to attend a private institution compared to a public one. While the average per-credit-hour rate is overall higher, private institutions generally charge less for online instruction than in-person instruction. Private institutions also offer fewer online programs.

  • The average per-credit-hour, in-state tuition rate for in-person instruction in the US among public schools for the 2019-20 academic year was $311.00 per credit hour.
  • The average per-credit-hour, in-state tuition rate for online instruction in the US among public schools for the 2019-20 academic year was $316.00 per credit hour.
  • The average per-credit-hour, in-state tuition rate for in-person instruction in the US among private schools for the 2019-20 academic year was $1,240.00 per credit hour.
  • The average per-credit-hour, in-state tuition rate for online instruction in the US among private schools for the 2019-20 academic year was $488.00 per credit hour.

In person vs online tuition type of school on EducationData

Cost of Attendance between Online Instruction vs In-Person Instruction 

The true cost of an in-person degree comes from the various expenses families take in when moving their student from one environment to another. Several of these costs do not show up in online instruction because the student is already situated in an established home environment. Many of the advantages on-campus students enjoy, such as enhanced financial aid benefits and eligibility for regional reciprocity agreement tuition discounts are not always available to online students.

  • Many of the costs below vary based on institution- the cost of parking permits for example vary greatly between schools.
  • The numbers below are average costs frequently associated with the expense. 
  • Attending school online eliminates the transportation cost. 
  • Costs for food, rent, or internet and other expenses may be outright eliminated if the student lives for free with their family or commutes to school from their parent’s home.  
  • Campus meal plans may be mandatory for freshman living on campus. 
  • Books and supplies includes materials that may be needed for class such as backpacks, notebooks, or pens. 
  • Only books were added to the cost of online instruction as notes and papers could be saved on the computer.   
  • Students moving into a new room or apartment may be responsible for their own furniture. 
  • 47% of students owned cars during the 2016-2017 school year. 
Online Instruction In-Person Instruction
Rental – $1,124/mo, or $13,488/yr  Housing – $9,905/yr
Food/Groceries – $250/mo or $3,120/yr  Campus Meal Plan – $4,500/yr
Broadband Internet – $696/yr  Campus Computer Lab – Free
Computer – $250 Parking Permit – $200/sem
Online Learning Fee – $25-$100/sem Health Services Fee – $20-$800/yr
Books – $1,020/yr  Transportation Costs – $3,400/yr
Books and supplies – $1,240/yr
Room Furniture – $970
Used car – $7,000-$11,000

Bachelor Degree Programs Comparison

In 2021m the 5 top-rated, fully-online bachelor degree programs were compared against their on campus counterparts. However, whether the online iteration or the in person program is more expensive varies by program and school.

  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is a private university – the other 4 are public institutions. 
  • The credit hours below are based on undergraduate prices. 
  • Cost may vary depending on the program, for example, Oregon State University charges more for students in the College of Engineering and the College of Business. 
School Tuition/credit hour (online) Tuition/credit hour (on-campus)
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University $447  $1,563
University of Illinois- Chicago $406-500 $404 (in-state)
$942.25 (out-of-state)
Oregon State University $331 $317 (in-state)
$983 (out-of-state)
CUNY School of Professional Studies $305 $305 (in-state)
$620 (out-of-state)
Colorado State University–Global Campus $476 $428 (in-state)
$1407 (out-of-state)

Advantages of Online Learning vs. On-Campus

Some of the advantages of one form of education over the other may not be measurable in financial terms. For example, flexible scheduling is one of the strongest advantages of an online education. Meanwhile, face-to-face interaction may be the strongest advantage of a traditional education.     

  • 18% of students in 2020 indicated completing financial aid and determining how to pay for online college was the biggest challenge of signing up for online college.
  • Only 17% of colleges waive tuition for online students in costs related to on-campus perks and programs, such as athletics, fitness centers, student life activities, etc.  
  • 42% of students surveyed in 2020 indicated staying motivated as a major problem in online classes. 
Online Instruction In-Person Instruction
Fewer regional restrictions on the availability of programs Increased eligibility for regional/resident financial aid
More accelerated programs available More academic programs to choose from
Flexible schedule and independence Structured schedule and class times
Immediate access to online resources for help Real-time interaction with instructors and professors
Emphasis on individual responsibility In-person tutoring
Fewer student fees for on-campus activities and facilities Access to physical resources such as libraries
Less environmental impact (travel, brick and mortar buildings) Social interaction with other students and faculty

When Colleges Charge Less For Online Tuition

Some institutions ended up charging less for online college. Several studies have suggested students are less successful in online programs. Scholars point to these studies and say it is especially true for low preforming students in face-to-face education – these students fare even worse in an online environment.

  • 73% of colleges that charge less for online instruction indicated market competition as a factor in their decision.
  • 63% of colleges that charge less for online instruction indicated that the lack of costs to them for campus activities, use of on-campus facilities, maintenance, or security affected the cost of the overall tuition. 
  • More private institutions than public indicated that meeting revenue goals through enrollment growth due to lower tuition was a significant reason for lower online tuition.
  • Students have also called for tuition refunds and generally lower prices due to their perceived lower quality of online instruction. 

Education Shifts Online 

The massive shift to online instruction as a result of COVID-19 will have future ramifications for the next several years – these effects have just begun playing out in 2021. Some scholars have noted that the increased reliance on online instruction is highlighting the deep inequities in online access among American communities. Several communities lack access to reliable internet and quality computers necessitating a need for course accessibility across alternative platforms.  

  • 33% of all college students took at least one course online before the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • 603,000 undergraduate students did not re-enroll in for the spring 2021 semester due to pandemic related concerns.  
  • The increase in online instruction is unlikely to lead to substantial cost savings for most colleges according to a Brookings Institution’s report. 
  • In a survey of undergraduates students who were forced to take online classes, 45% reported internet connectivity issues that interfered with their course participation. 
  • State funding for college budgets has diminished over the years – resulting in colleges pushing the cost onto the students.  
  • Online learning and the pandemic push for a faster transition exacerbated the college budget crises.  
  • 87% of surveyed students reported being satisfied with their courses before the Pandemic forced them to be fully online.
  • 59% of surveyed students reported being satisfied with their course after the Pandemic forced them to be fully online. 

College Education Plans on EducationData


  1. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES): The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System
  2. Quality Matters (QM): The Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) Project
  3. U.S. News: Accredited Online Colleges 
  4. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Tuition and Fees, 1998-99 Through 2020-21
  5. US Department of Education: Home
  6. Brookings Institution: Why the move to online instruction won’t reduce college costs
  7. Digital Promise – Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During The Covid-19 Pandemic 
  8. The College Crisis Initiative: Most Recent 2021 Spring Plans 
  9. Dorm vs. Apartment: Which is Cheaper
  10. U.S. News Study: Students Spent $5.9B Furnishing College Dorms