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The Most Affordable Online Colleges of 2016

Our research team, lead by Donna Gardner Liljegren, a dean of online enrollment, spent over 50 hours reviewing hundreds of schools offering fully online undergraduate programs in order to identify the most affordable, high quality options. The top three affordable online colleges for 2016 are the University of Central Florida, Valley City State University, and Eastern New Mexico University.

 

Overview of Research

With the help of our expert, Donna Gardner Liljegren, we identified every accredited institution offering fully online programs awarding bachelor’s degrees, as reported to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), amounting to well over three thousand schools. We then established a number of minimum requirements to narrow our list down, along with five core metrics used to assess each school: tuition, the number of online programs, the online student body, academics, and the school’s selectivity. When ranking schools based purely on affordability, low tuition and fees are the essential indicators and, as you would expect, they played an outsized role in our school evaluations.

donna_liljegren
Donna Gardner Liljegren

Dean of Online Enrollment & Continuing Education

Donna is Dean of Online Enrollment & Continuing Education at AU Online at Aurora University in Illinois. For over twenty years, Donna has worked in both private and for-profit institutions, developing and teaching online courses.

The five metrics chosen were subdivided into finer government data points, 15 criteria overall, all of which contributed to a school’s final score. These data points have been arranged into an easy to follow directory below, letting prospective students meticulously compare institutions.

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The Most Affordable Online Colleges of 2016

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Methodology

Our Expert

Donna Gardner Liljegren is Dean of Online Enrollment & Continuing Education at AU Online at Aurora University in Illinois. For over twenty years, Donna has worked in both private and for-profit institutions, developing and teaching online courses. She also received a doctorate in adult learning and online program assessment.

How We Selected Our List of Affordable Online Courses

We started with a list of over 3,000 schools, pulled from IPEDS, that are currently offering distance programs or courses online. In order to trim this list down we applied five filters:

  • Schools must have at least 1,000 students enrolled
  • At least 10% of a school’s students must be enrolled exclusively online
  • At least 30% of a school’s students must take at least some courses online
  • Schools must have at least two fully online bachelor’s programs
  • Schools cannot be seminaries, divinity schools, or technical colleges
  • Schools must report admission and enrollment rates, retention rates, graduation rates, and their student-faculty ratio to IPEDS

With these filters applied, our list was drastically reduced down to 20 institutions, which we then assessed, scored, and ranked. These schools are as follows:

  1. California University of Pennsylvania
  2. Eastern New Mexico University
  3. Georgia Southwestern State University
  4. Hodges University
  5. Kentucky State University
  6. Mercy College of Ohio
  7. Morehead State University
  8. National Louis University
  9. Northwestern Oklahoma State University
  10. Northwestern State University of Louisiana
  11. Rogers State University
  12. Texas A&M University – Commerce
  13. Texas Woman’s University
  14. University of Alabama at Birmingham
  15. University of Central Florida
  16. University of Hawaii – West Oahu
  17. University of Houston – Victoria
  18. University of Illinois – Springfield
  19. University of Michigan – Flint
  20. Valley City State University

How We Selected the Features for Our Methodology

Our team assembled a list of five core metrics. Contained within these metrics are 15 sub-metrics. As we’ve mentioned above, the overall cost of tuition is the central metric in a review of most affordable online schools — online institution are well regarded for their low cost and we wanted to start by identifying the schools with the very lowest.

But while we could have simply looked at the school with the lowest overall tuition and called a winner, we felt the need to consider schools’ commitment to online students and the quality of their academics and admissions. These metrics, when combined, gave us a far more well-rounded list, made up of schools that maintain high quality standards while also keeping costs low. This, in a sense, then is a ranked list of the most valuable schools instead of a list of the cheapest.

Our core metrics and sub-metrics are as follows:

Metric 1: Tuition (30%)

  • Average Annual Tuition and Fees
  • In-State Tuition
  • Out-of-State Tuition

Metric 2: Online Student Body (20%)

  • Percent of Undergraduates Enrolled Exclusively in Distance Courses
  • Percent of Undergraduates Enrolled in Some Distance Courses

Metric 3: Number of Online Programs (20%)

  • Number of Fully Online Bachelor’s Programs

Metric 4: Academics (15%)

  • Full-time Retention Rate
  • Part-time Retention Rate
  • Student-to-Faculty Ratio
  • Graduation Rate

Metric 5: Selectivity (15%)

  • Percent Admitted
  • Percent Enrolled
  • Total Applicants
  • Total Admissions
  • Total Enrollment

Our research team collected sub-metric data from the schools themselves, especially tuition and fees, as well as from the most recent, officially released IPEDS figures (all from the ’13-’14 school year).

How We Scored Our Methodology

Our five core metrics used to assess schools were made up of the 15 sub-metrics we researched. To calculate each college’s core metric score, we first scored each of these sub-metrics.

For example, the academics metric has four sub-metrics: full-time retention, part-time retention, student-to-faculty ration, and graduation rate. With the help of our expert, we assigned a score, out of 10 for each sub-metric Taking the average of those scores, we then arrived at a score for the academics core metric.

Take the University of Alabama – Birmingham, in terms of the academic sub-metrics, this is how the school scored:

  • Full-Time Retention – 9.5/10
  • Part-Time Retention – 6.8/10
  • Student-to-Faculty Ratio – 5/10
  • Graduation Rate – 9/10

We averaged these four scores to get 7.6 for Alabama’s academic core metric score.

After assigning a score to each school in each core metric, we then calculated every school’s final, overall score. These scores were largely determined by the importance of each core metric. Importance was determined by percentile weights assigned to each. These weights are as follows:

  1. Tuition – 30%
  2. Online Student Body – 20%
  3. Number of Online Programs – 20%
  4. Academics – 15%
  5. Selectivity – 15%

As you can see, tuition receives the highest weight as it is the most important factor in a list of affordable online institutions. Tied for second most important are the additional online factors, which give us a sense of how many enrolled students pursue courses online as well as how many fully online options the school offers. To round things out, we look at how academically elite a school is as well as how selective it regards to its admissions.

To get an overall score, we took a school’s score in each core metric, multiplied them by the assigned weights, and then took the sum of the weighted metrics. The school with the highest overall sum became our most affordable online school for 2016.

Drawbacks of Our Methodology

A number of schools failed to make our list due to inadequate reporting on their institution. While these schools may be qualified for our list, the scarcity of public information available makes it too hard to assess them. In a somewhat similar vein, some schools offering online programs operate on a massive scale, with campuses found nationwide. These schools tend to report on a campus-by-campus basis only, meaning hard data tied to their online offerings tends to be hard to come by. Such schools were filtered out as well, though again they may have their merits.

Understanding Our Data

Learn about how we ranked each college

1. Tuition back to metric

Very Important

30.00% of our methodology score

Why this is important: Low tuition and fees are the driving force in an assessment of affordable online colleges. When researching the cost of online programs in particular, we discovered that many schools charge the same amount for tuition regardless of whether students attend online or in-person. For such schools, even in-state and out-of-state tuitions are the same for online students. There are however, a number of schools that charge a reduced rate for online students, often several hundred dollars less annually.

As far as additional fees go, most mirror the school’s in-person costs, with the exception of a per course online fee. This fee, ranging anywhere from $10 to $50 per course, is worth researching, as it really varies school to school and could easily add up to a few hundred dollars per year.

Below you will find our breakdown of the tuition metric. For schools that only listed cost on a per course credit basis, we assumed two 12 credit semesters to calculate an annual tuition figure.

Schools with the Lowest Tuition
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2. Online Student Body back to metric

Very Important

20.00% of our methodology score

Why this is important: The number of enrolled students actively pursuing their education online is a strong indicator that a school has extensive, high quality online programs with broad appeal. Using the 2014 IPEDs data, we were able to identify the percent of students exclusively enrolled in online programs and the percent taking some but not all online courses. As a baseline, we only looked at schools with 10% of students enrolled full-time online and with 30% taking at least one online course. We took the average of these two figures to determine which schools had the strongest overall online student community.

Schools with the Best Online Student Body
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3. Number of Online Programs back to metric

Important

20.00% of our methodology score

Why this is important: Much like the online student body, the number of online programs offered is a great indicator that a school invests heavily in online coursework. For our assessment we focused on fully online bachelor’s programs. While individual courses, certificates, and associate and graduate programs are all fixtures of online education, our ranking is intended for undergraduate students in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. As such, it was key that schools have a variety of said degrees available online ― the more degrees offered, the higher a school scored. The schools that top this core metric tend to offer an online equivalent for virtually every program offered on campus, an impressive feat.

Schools with the Highest Number of Online Programs
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4. Academics back to metric

Somewhat Important

15.00% of our methodology score

Why this is important: The quality of the education earned always deserves consideration. With the assistance of IPEDs, we were able to pull the following data: full-time retention rates, part-time retention rates, student-to-faculty ratios, and graduation rates. Retention rates give us a sense of how students find the school; in essence, it is the percent of students who return to the school after completing a full year of their program. High retention rates tell us that the education provided appeals to students and motivates them to continue earning their degree. Student-to-faculty ratios, of course, gives us an idea of how much individual attention students tend to receive from professors throughout their program. Finally, graduation rates tell us how able the school is to produce graduates ready to enter the real world.

We scored every school on each of these four sub-metrics and then, taking an average score for each school, were able to determine an overall academics score.

Schools with the Best Overall Academics
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5. Selectivity back to metric

Somewhat Important

15.00% of our methodology score

Why this is important: Similar to academics, selectivity tells us a good deal about the rigor of a school, as well as how prospective students perceive it. In order to get a selectivity score we looked at the number of applicant and the number of students accepted for the Fall of 2014, with these figures we were able to calculate the school’s acceptance rate. We then looked at the number of newly enrolled students over the same time, which, divided by total acceptance, gave us an enrollment rate. A low acceptance rate earned a school a high score, as did a high enrollment rate. Combining the scores from acceptance and enrollment and taking their average gave us our overall selectivity score.

Schools with the Highest Selectivity
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Editor's Awards

University of Central Florida

University of Central Florida consistently overperformed across our core metrics, making it a decisive #1.

The University of Central Florida, already a flagship university for the state, with over 52,000 undergraduates as of 2014, has embraced online education in a big way. Today, the school has 18 bachelor’s degrees fully offered online, the 2nd most amongst schools we reviewed; majors hail from the school’s liberal arts, social sciences, healthcare, and law departments, to name only a few. Enrolled online students also have remote access to a host of resources, including library services, a writing center, and the school’s student academic resource center.

As for cost, average annual tuition for online students comes in at approximately $6,000 per year (dependent, in part, on Florida residency status), one of the lowest averages amongst schools on our list. In addition, the school waives many fees associated with attending in-person.

CFU will be the complete package for many prospective online students: recognizable brand, wealth of choices, and a great price point.

Drawbacks:

  • Only 12% of CFU students are fully enrolled online, on the low end of the schools on our list.
  • Just under 40% of students accepted to CFU enroll, which, again, is towards the lower end in our review.

Ranking Results:

  • Tuition – 9/10
  • Online Student Body – 6.3/10
  • Number of Online Programs – 9.5/10
  • Academics – 7.5/10
  • Selectivity – 7.3/10



Eastern New Mexico University-Main Campus

Eastern New Mexico keeps tuition low and program variety high.

Coming in third overall, Eastern Mexico received top marks for its number of online programs, blowing the competition away with 30 distinct, fully online bachelor’s degrees. Popular programs include a series of ten business administration degrees with various concentrations, STEM programs in electronics engineering and aviation, nursing degrees, and social work and sociology degrees.

ENMU is authorized to enroll distance students from more than half of U.S. states, and, as indicated by its online portal, is committed to engaging with its online students, ensuring they are comfortable with the school’s online environment and poised to succeed. The school also maintains an online library service able to meet virtually all the research needs of remote students.

Drawbacks:

  • Eastern New Mexico’s graduation rate for 2014 came in at a disappointing 28%.
  • Only 31% of students in 2014 were enrolled in some online courses, which puts it right near the bottom compared with other schools on our list.

Ranking Results:

  • Tuition – 8.5/10
  • Online Student Body – 5/10
  • Number of Online Programs – 10/10
  • Academics – 4/10
  • Selectivity – 6.8/10



University of Houston-Victoria

UH - Victoria has one of the strongest communities of online students in the nation.

At UH – Victoria, a third of all students are enrolled full-time in online courses; another 41% take at least one but not all online courses. These sub-metrics suggest a remarkable interest in the school’s online programs, a big reason why Victoria finished fifth overall on our list. One of the keys to Victoria’s online success is 17 programs offered fully online, including a variety of degrees in psychology, communications, business administration, and English. Overall, the University of Houston has 108 online degree and certificate programs, many of which feature individual courses that can be taken while students pursue one of Victoria’s online bachelor’s.

Tuition-wise, online students are looking at an annual average of around $10,500, which, while in the lower half of our list, is still very much a competitive rate.

Drawbacks:

  • Houston – Victoria underperformed in academics, particularly due to its 29% retention rate of part-time students.
  • Only 15.2% of students accepted chose to enroll in the school.

Ranking Results:

  • Tuition – 5/10
  • Online Student Body – 9.8/10
  • Number of Online Programs – 9/10
  • Academics – 3/10
  • Selectivity – 5/10



Georgia Southwestern State University

For students strictly concerned with cost, Georgia Southwestern is far and away the cheapest option.

At roughly $5,200 annual tuition for an online bachelor’s, Georgia Southwestern is about as cheap a deal as online students can find. The catch, however, is that the school currently offers just four online bachelor’s programs: criminal justice, business administration, information technology, and an RN to BSN program. Thankfully, these programs are distinct, high quality degrees; the criminal justice program is particularly interesting as it is offered in partnership with Dalton State College, meaning students enjoy full access to the resources and faculty provided by both institutions.

It is also worth noting that the school performed particularly well in selectivity, accepting less than 70% of applicants and enrolling more than half of those accepted.

Drawbacks:

  • Georgia Southwestern only has four fully online bachelor’s programs, just hovering over the minimum amount required to make the list.
  • The school only reported a graduation rate of 32% in Fall 2014.

Ranking Results:

  • Tuition – 10/10
  • Online Student Body – 4.5/10
  • Number of Online Programs – 3.5/10
  • Academics – 5.6/10
  • Selectivity – 6.5/10



University of Illinois at Springfield

The quality of education at the University of Illinois - Springfield easily trumps the competition.

With both retention rates well above 70% and a student-faculty ratio of 14 to 1, Illinois Springfield’s academic standards stand out amongst all affordable online schools. In fact, U.S. News and World Report named it the 30th best online bachelor’s program overall. To date, the school maintains an impressive 11 fully online bachelor’s degrees, amongst a host of certificates and online graduate opportunities. Popular online degrees include courses in business administration, computer science, and management information systems.

The school is also notable for its extensive network of partner schools, which, in many cases, lets online student enroll in a slew of courses not otherwise available at Springfield. Lastly, the school maintains a regularly updated YouTube channel dedicated solely to the school’s online students, introducing them to the online environment and providing tips on how to succeed.

Drawbacks:

  • With 30% of student taking some online courses, our bare minimum, Springfield just made the cut.
  • Only about a third of students accepted choose to enroll at Springfield.

Ranking Results:

  • Tuition – 6/10
  • Online Student Body – 5/10
  • Number of Online Programs – 7.5/10
  • Academics – 8.3/10
  • Selectivity – 5.5/10



Mercy College of Ohio

Though less focused on online students, Mercy College of Ohio is the most selective school on our list.

Admitting less than 60% of applicants overall, while enrolling 55% of those accepted makes Mercy an easy number one in terms of selectivity. As far as online opportunities go, all of the school’s fully online programs are focused on health; for bachelor’s degrees, Mercy has an RN to BSN, a medical imaging bachelor’s and a healthcare administration bachelor’s. Though light on choices, the few on offer are strikingly robust and well-designed. The same goes for the on-site distance education portal, which clearly introduces students to the school’s online process, addressing every major concern and question.

Academics-wise, the school was one of the best on our list. The 6 to 1 student-to-faculty ratio is the best amongst all 20 schools, and its 66% graduation rate for 2014 is our second highest.

Drawbacks:

  • Mercy College only has three fully online bachelor’s programs, the lowest amount on our list.
  • Annual tuition for online students comes in at just under $12,000, the 9th highest among schools on our list.

Ranking Results:

  • Tuition – 4.5/10
  • Online Student Body – 6.3/10
  • Number of Online Programs – 3/10
  • Academics – 7.2/10
  • Selectivity – 8/10

Last Updated on April 13, 2016

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