The U.S. News Short List, separate from our overall rankings, is a regular series that magnifies individual data points in hopes of providing students and parents a way to find which undergraduate or graduate programs excel or have room to grow in specific areas. Be sure to explore The Short List: Grad School andThe Short List: Online Programsto find data that matters to you in your college or grad school search.
Online learning was already well established before the coronavirus hit U.S. shores, but as many colleges moved online to combat a destabilizing pandemic, distance learning became the default instruction method almost overnight.
With 6.9 million students enrolled in any distance education courses in fall 2018, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, online learning was already booming. Now experts expect the effects of COVID-19 will act as an accelerant.
The expected result is growth in online degree programs with more options available from a wider range of colleges. A multitude of new options may also mean more flexible and affordable online programs for students to choose from.
As it stands, online degree programs aren't necessarily cheaper than on-campus options. Even when breaking away from brick-and-mortar buildings, colleges have to account for instructional costs, software packages, and technical training and support, among other expenses that tend to prevent schools from offering deep discounts for online programs.
But online options are a great way to shop around, particularly for place-bound students. Some online programs are surprisingly affordable, even for out-of-state students who typically pay higher tuition rates at public colleges than state residents.
Of the 171 ranked public colleges offering online bachelor's degrees that submitted this data to U.S. News in an annual survey, 86 offer 2020-2021 out-of-state tuition estimated to cost under $50,000 for their entire programs. The average out-of-state per credit cost among all ranked public schools is $460.
At the 10 colleges with the least expensive online bachelor's degrees for out-of-state students, total program costs come out to an average of $23,846. Among these schools, the out-of-state cost per credit ranges from a low of $113 at Middle Georgia State University -- which tops this list, thanks to a total program cost of $13,560 -- to a high of $454 at the University of Central Arkansas.
The average out-of-state cost per credit at these 10 schools is $221, per U.S. News data.
Most online bachelor's programs require students to complete 120 credits to graduate. Among the 171 ranked public schools reporting this data, the average number of credits needed to graduate is 122.
Of the 10 most affordable online programs for out-of-state students, four are in Georgia and two are in Arkansas; the four remaining schools are in Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Ohio.
What students ultimately pay for an online bachelor's degree may vary based on the school they enroll in and the credits required to graduate. Additionally, students may be able to transfer college credits in from prior coursework completed, or earn credit for prior professional pursuits or military service, putting those learners on the fast track to earn a college degree.
Below is a list of the undergraduate online programs where out-of-state students are charged the lowest total program cost during the 2020-2021 school year. Unranked schools, which did not meet certain criteria required by U.S. News to be ranked, were not considered for this report.
Out-of-state cost per credit
Credits needed to graduate
Out-of-state total program cost
U.S. News rank
School officials can access historical data and rankings, including of peer institutions, via U.S. News Academic Insights.
U.S. News surveyed more than 350 colleges and universities for our 2021 Best Online Bachelor's Programs rankings. Schools self-reported myriad data regarding their academic programs and the makeup of their student body, among other areas, making U.S. News' data the most accurate and detailed collection of college facts and figures of its kind. While U.S. News uses much of this survey data to rank schools for our annual Best Online Programs rankings, the data can also be useful when examined on a smaller scale. U.S. News will now produce lists of data, separate from the overall rankings, meant to provide students and parents a means to find which schools excel, or have room to grow, in specific areas that are important to them. While the data comes from the schools themselves, these lists are not related to, and have no influence over, U.S. News' rankings of Best Colleges, Best Graduate Schools or Best Online Programs. The tuition data above is correct as of Jan. 26, 2021.