Comparing College Costs: How to Get the Most for Your Tuition Money

By Greg Scott Neuman
Posted 2010

The economy is recovering – slowly. Too slowly for most of those who lost their jobs in the recent recession to have seen any practical benefits yet. What’s more, the severity of the downturn has demonstrated that having any old job is not enough to ensure financial security. You have to have the right kind of job.

This growing realization among American workers has led to a huge interest in education. If you’re considering going back to school, you are probably wondering how to get the most for your college tuition – especially if you have work, family and other responsibilities.

You want to know if accredited online colleges are as good as their campus-based counterparts, and if online college courses can really save you a lot of money. You might also be wondering if you can accomplish your educational goals at a two-year community college, or if you’re better off pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school.

Here’s some critical information on each of your choices, and some numbers to help you compare prices:

Accredited Online Colleges vs. Campus-Based Colleges

First and foremost, a word of advice: Unless you are attending a vocational/technical program, don’t even consider on-campus or online schools that lack regional accreditation. Sure they’re cheap, but unaccredited colleges can cause students a variety of problems, including the inability to transfer credits from one school to another. That said, earning an online college degree can be a valid choice – just make sure that the institution you choose is certified by one of the six regional U.S. accrediting bodies.

Surprisingly, the cost of tuition at accredited online colleges is not all that different from what traditional public universities charge in-state students: both run about $250 - $300 per credit hour. Recent studies by The College Board report that once you add in other fees, this translates to roughly $7,500 per year.* However, the cost of tuition at accredited online colleges is significantly better than what public universities charge out-of-state students (about $12,000 per year) or the cost of a private college (about $27,000 annually).

Where you can really save money by studying online is in housing and transportation costs. Distance learning students do not have to pay dorm fees, purchase meal plans or drive to class – which, depending on your living situation, can mean big savings.

Community Colleges vs. Four-Year Colleges

Fortunately for America’s collective pocketbook, workers can enter many of the fastest-growing careers with an associate’s degree. Nursing and web design are excellent examples; even though higher degrees exist for both of these booming professions, an Associate’s degree in Nursing (ADN) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Web Development can qualify you for entry-level positions in their respective fields.

At about $2,700 per year, the cost in tuition and fees of a two-year community college is significantly less than that of a public or private four-year school. If the career you want to enter requires only an associate’s degree, it definitely makes financial sense to earn it at a community college. And even if you’re planning on getting a bachelor’s, completing your first two years at the local community college can be a great way to save some money.

Final Thoughts

What four-year schools offer that community colleges and online colleges generally don’t is the “college experience” – sports, parties, dorm life, fraternities, sororities, etc. This is an important consideration for many younger students, and if you’re one of them then four years at a traditional college can be well worth the extra expense. On the other hand, working adults with families are seldom concerned about frat parties and football games, so an online school or community college is often a better choice.

Ultimately you will have to take the facts you’ve learned here, judge them in relation to your lifestyle and how much you can afford, and make the best decision you can. What’s most important is that you get a solid education from an accredited school so that you can land secure, lucrative employment once you graduate.

*Trends in College Pricing, 2010

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