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The best financial aid packages for online colleges in 2019-20

With tuition costs rising, a school that helps you pay for your education can be a lifesaver. Learn about the schools doing the most to help their students here.

By Justin Boyle, OnlineColleges.com

You've probably heard about the growing concern over the magnitude of the national student debt, and the statistics show that there might be something to it. Forbes reported in 2018 that the total amount of money owed by student borrowers is over $1.5 trillion, with the average Class of 2016 graduate carrying more than $37,000 in unpaid college loans.

Steadily increasing tuition rates are certainly part of the reason for those big numbers, but they don't tell the whole story. At public schools in most states, for example, room and board, transportation, books and supplies tend to tend to cost as much or more as tuition and mandatory fees. Here are a few quick data points from the College Board:

Average tuition, fees, room and board at public universities, 2018-19: $21,370 Average tuition and fees at public universities, 2018-19: $10,230 Average room and board at public universities, 2018-19: $11,140


How Can I Afford College?

© Getty Images/ 10 colleges with best financial aid

These numbers may seem forbidding, but don't let them discourage you. There are a range of options available for students who are looking to save a few thousand dollars each year on the basic costs of enrollment. Here are three tips to get you started:

Tip One: Earning your degree online can actually help lower admission costs, particularly at in-state schools. If you take an active role in budgeting your education, the savings available by avoiding parking fees, meal plans, dorm charges and hardcover textbooks can be significant.

Tip Two: Financial aid is a big part of just about every student's college budget, and can often make the biggest difference to your total debt load. If you attend one of the most affordable online colleges in your state with an eye toward landing scholarships and grants, you may be able to knock thousands of dollars off the total cost of your degree.

Tip Three: Although schools in your own state are likely to offer more affordable degree programs than schools in other states, some out-of-state institutions offer tuition breaks -- especially for online students -- that may tip the scales. Be sure to look into such options if your goal is to attend college out-of-state.

The moral of the story is, don't write off your dream school without making sure you're aware of all the different sources of aid that might be able to help you afford your education! Here are a few important avenues of aid to be aware of when doing your research:

FAFSA. Every student should be familiar with the FAFSA. An acronym for "Free Application for Federal Student Aid," this nationwide form can be your gateway to thousands of potential scholarships, grants and subsidized loans.

Tuition payment plans. Some institutions have financing options to help students spread the cost of their tuition and fees over a series of installments. These plans may come with restrictions, so be sure to talk to your registrar or financial aid advisor for details.

Prepaid tuition plans. This kind of plan allows students, family members and others to purchase tuition credits before university admission is even granted. Tuition credits scale with the cost of tuition, meaning that they'll hold their value per credit hour even as tuition increases.

Guaranteed tuition plans. Some states offer tuition guarantees for resident students. These plans ensure that the tuition rate you pay during your first year of enrollment stays consistent throughout the rest of your degree plan, creating a stable base for budgeting your education expenses.

Institutional grants. Unlike loans, these financial aid awards don't need to be repaid after graduation. In most cases, they are available through individual colleges and universities, so your school's financial aid office should be able to tell you about them. However, grants often come with specific sets of eligibility qualifications and may require applications other than the FAFSA, so it helps to be proactive about pursuing them.

Title IV. Federal student aid initiatives, which include Stafford Loans, Pell Grants and other common programs, all fall under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Only schools included under Title IV may disburse aid from these programs to their students.


10 Online Colleges with the Best Financial Aid in 2019-20

In order to find out which schools offer the most affordable online degree programs when accounting for variable factors such as financial aid and tuition plans, we had to get creative. The U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)'s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) supplies data about higher education, such as cumulative median student debt, average financial aid by student income level and the net price of education after average grant and scholarship aid is factored in. We pulled together data on those points and others, then ran the data through our proprietary ranking methodology to calculate this list.

Please note that this is NOT a list of the cheapest online colleges. In fact, the tuition costs for these colleges can be quite high. However, the large amount of financial assistance that these colleges offer can make them much more affordable than the price tag may lead you to believe! It is also worth noting that the schools on this list are unanimously high quality, with the majority earning a score of 95 or higher in our Top Colleges Tool.

Read on for our list of the most affordable online colleges and see if one might be right for you. 


1. University of Arizona

© Richard Cummins/Getty Images University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz.

Average amount of institutional grant/scholarship aid $9,584

Percent of student body awarded financial aid 68%

Net price of education $15,758

Prospective students at this public research university in Tucson, Arizona, have dozens of online options available across multiple degree levels. Undergraduates can choose from an eclectic array of subjects including informatics, Africana studies and sustainable built environments, while graduate students can either pursue full-fledged master's degree programs or enroll in graduate certificate programs that typically require around 15 credit hours to complete.

What makes this online college affordable? One of the main features that landed UA among our most affordable online colleges is its pledge to charge in-state tuition to online students from anywhere in the world. Nonresidents of Arizona paid an average of $24,000 more per year for campus-based tuition than their in-state counterparts in 2018-19, so the savings extended to online degree seekers make for a welcome incentive.


2. Southern Illinois University-Carbondale

© Seth Perlman/AP Photo A southern Illinois farmer works on his tractor in an almost ready to harvest soybean field, near Lebanon, Ill.

Average amount of institutional grant/scholarship aid $10,081

Percent of student body awarded financial aid 78%

Net price of education $16,431

Southern Illinois University welcomed just 143 students in its inaugural year of 1869, but the 15 decades since have seen it grow into a comprehensive university with a student body of more than 17,000 full- and part-time learners. Online degree programs at SIU feature subjects like mortuary science and aviation technologies at the bachelor's level and several advanced health care programs for graduate students.

What makes this online college affordable? Online students enrolling from within the U.S. have access to in-state tuition rates at SIU, which ran roughly $315 for undergraduates and $460 for graduate students in 2018. Active military servicemembers can reduce that figure even further if they qualify for the discount of $59 per credit hour provided by the institution's Active Duty Scholarship.


3. Northern Arizona University


Average amount of institutional grant/scholarship aid $8,741

Percent of student body awarded financial aid 67%

Net price of education $14,901

The selection of online programs available at Northern Arizona University is one of the largest among our most affordable online colleges, ranging from the bachelor's level up to the doctorate, with both graduate and undergraduate certificate options as well. This Flagstaff-based school also offers a handful of Personalized Learning online programs with a competency-based schedule, meaning that students set their own deadlines and move through the curriculum at their own pace.

What makes this online college affordable? NAU awards more than $325 million in grants, scholarships and other student aid packages to its campus-based and online students each year. Around a dozen different types of scholarships are available to students who meet the eligibility requirements, including an assistance program specific to students in Personalized Learning programs.


4. University of Oklahoma - Norman Campus

© Jackson Laizure/Getty Images Injured cornerback Zack Sanchez rewards quarterback Baker Mayfield #6 of the Oklahoma Sooners with a piece of gum after scoring a touchdown against the Iowa State Cyclones on Nov. 7, 2015 at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma.

Average amount of institutional grant/scholarship aid $8,679

Percent of student body awarded financial aid 68%

Net price of education $20,003

The University of Oklahoma was founded in 1890 in Norman, on land that was once a barren prairie. Well over a hundred years later, its annual operating budget is over $2 billion and the enrolled student population numbers nearly 32,000. Online students at OU have a variety of programs to choose from, with options in business, health care, criminal justice, engineering and the humanities.

What makes this online college affordable? Tuition rates for in-state online students at OU are especially affordable, totaling just over $350 per credit hour in tuition and fees for programs offered through the institution's extended campus. Numerous scholarships are available for students in online and hybrid programs, including a tuition waiver for undergraduates returning to school after spending five or more years in the workforce or otherwise away from school. 


5. Ohio University - Main Campus

© Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Average amount of institutional grant/scholarship aid $5,970

Percent of student body awarded financial aid 58%

Net price of education $21,607

Ohio University, the oldest school among our most affordable online colleges, opened in 1808 with one building, one professor and three students. It's grown quite a bit since then -- the campus features seven art galleries, for example -- and the catalog has come to offer a wide range of online programs. Distance education options include associate, bachelor's and master's programs, as well as a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP). What's more, the Athens school partners with several regional community colleges to provide increased opportunities for students.

What makes this online college affordable? Online attendance costs at Ohio University are negligibly different for in-state and out-of-state residents, differing by just $3 in 2018-19. The institution also offers the OHIO Guarantee, a billing model that locks in a student's tuition and fee rates for 12 consecutive semesters.

INTERVIEW WITH AN EXPERT: David Dollins, associate vice president of enrollment management at Clarion University of Pennsylvania

"Unlike other industries where negotiating price is commonplace, within higher education that practice is not as frequent. With that said, universities are more commonly "discounting" tuition rates (i.e., "sticker price") to draw more students. Savvy families will work to negotiate scholarship amounts and pit another university's (or universities') financial aid package against yours in an effort to leverage more aid dollars off total cost. The challenge, though, is that the Department of Education has very strict regulations on loans and federal grant money, and so more often than not it is the university's own monies that are being utilized to see what might be done, if anything at all. This means that not all schools are in a position to negotiate, so students and families should still keep overall academic fit top of mind. But it never hurts to ask."

Dollins previously served as executive director of undergraduate admissions and orientation at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. Under his leadership, NAU recruited and enrolled six straight, record first-year classes, representing 41.5 percent growth since 2011.


6. Temple University

© George Widman/AP Photo A building on the Temple University campus at North Broad Street and West Montgomery Avenue in Philadelphia is shown July 19, 2007. George Widman/AP Photo

Average amount of institutional grant/scholarship aid $8,441

Percent of student body awarded financial aid 78%

Net price of education $22,940

Temple University has a unique origin among major research universities: it got its start as a series of informal evening tutoring sessions for students who had to work during the day. It's grown into the largest public research institution in the Philadelphia metro area, operating eight campuses and serving more than 38,000 students each year. A Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.) program is its only online offering for undergraduates, but advanced students can choose from a much larger catalog of graduate and post-graduate degree or certificate programs.

What makes this online college affordable? Students at Temple can take advantage of tuition financing rather than paying their full semester's bill all at once. The Temple Installment Payment Plan (TIPP), an interest-free installment plan that consists of up to ten monthly payments, is one such option. 


7. University of Illinois at Springfield

© Thinkstock Springfield, Illinois State Capitol Building

Average amount of institutional grant/scholarship aid $8,972

Percent of student body awarded financial aid 64%

Net price of education $12,054

The Springfield location is by far the smallest of the three institutions in the University of Illinois system. Its student body of around 5,000 represents about six percent of the system's total enrollment. Still, its online offerings are mighty -- UIS has a portfolio of online degree programs suitable for both graduate and undergraduate students, in addition to a slew of graduate certificate, certification and licensure programs.

What makes this online college affordable? Fully online programs at UIS are assessed different rates for tuition and fees than those delivered on campus, which can lead to a significant cost savings for residents as well as nonresident students. E-tuition rates worked out to less than $400 per credit hour in 2018-19, while in-state and out-of-state rates came to around $450 and $760 respectively.


8. Ohio State University - Main Campus

© Thinkstock Columbus, Ohio beyond The Ohio State University

Average amount of institutional grant/scholarship aid $9,275

Percent of student body awarded financial aid 67%

Net price of education $18,042

Ohio State University is a land-grant, sea-grant and space-grant university in Columbus, Ohio that features 18 academic colleges and schools. Nearly two dozen online programs are available at OSU, including undergraduate study plans in health care and health sciences and a catalog of graduate offerings ranging from a Master in Plant Health Management to a Master of Arts (M.A.) in bioethics.

What makes this online college affordable? The affordability of degree programs at OSU is well-documented, for online students as well as those earning their degrees on campus. Kiplinger's Personal Finance ranked the Columbus institution among its top 20 best-value public colleges, and the university reports that nearly 45 percent of its undergraduates complete their programs with zero college debt.


9. Florida State University

© Denis Jr. Tangney/Getty Images 'The Florida State University is a space-grant and sea-grant public university located in Tallahassee, FloridaMore Tallahassee Images' Denis Jr. Tangney

Average amount of institutional grant/scholarship aid $5,164

Percent of student body awarded financial aid 88%

Net price of education $16,450

Founded in 1851, Florida State University is one of the longest-standing institutions among our most affordable online colleges. Online undergraduate degree paths at this Tallahassee school are "advanced standing" programs, which means that students are generally expected to have completed at least 60 hours of transferrable credit before they're eligible for enrollment. Graduate and certificate plans come with no such restriction.

What makes this online college affordable? Tuition rates for online degree programs at FSU tend to adhere to the same residency requirements as on-campus plans. Out-of-state students who live in one of the 15 member states of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) can qualify for resident tuition rates on select graduate programs through the Academic Common Market.


10. Oklahoma State University - Main Campus

© Sue Ogrocki/Getty Images Oklahoma State wide receiver Jalen McCleskey (1) reaches for the ball in front of Tulsa safety Samuel Gottsch (18) following a fumble on a kick return in Stillwater, Okla. on Aug. 31. Oklahoma State won 59-24.

Average amount of institutional grant/ scholarship aid $8,761

Percent of student body awarded financial aid 73%

Net price of education $14,513

The flagship location of Oklahoma State University styles itself as America's Healthiest Campus, hosting a range of programs and services designed to promote physical and emotional wellness. OSU has a healthy set of online offerings as well: in addition to fully online undergraduate (associate and bachelor's) degree and certificate programs, the university presents several hybrid study plans that blend on-campus and online courses.

What makes this online college affordable? Oklahoma residents are charged the same base tuition rate whether they pursue their degrees online or on campus, although fees tend to vary depending on the individual degree program. A financing schedule called the Payment Option Plan allows students to distribute their attendance costs over a series of installments. OSU also offers more than $320 million in scholarships, grants and financial aid each year.


Other Resources

If you've got questions the information on this page didn't answer, there are other resources that you can look into. The financial aid office at your intended university is always a good bet, for one -- they'll likely have the scoop on institution-specific programs like grants and scholarships that sources outside that particular college may not know about.

Chances are that you'll still need to take out at least one or two student loans to take care of your remaining tuition expenses, but taking an active role in your college finances should help you avoid the worst of it. Don't forget to check out our How to Pay index page for more information, and good luck!

Methodology:

We ranked 969 schools based on the following categories:

Available alternative tuition plans, using the 2015-16 final data set from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Number of distance education programs offered, using the 2015-16 final data set from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Cumulative median debt of graduating students, using data from College Scorecard, 2017.

Average debt repayment of graduated students, averaged together from four different durations that were analyzed using data from College Scorecard, 2017.

Average amount of institutional grant aid awarded to students, using the 2015-16 final data set from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Percent of students receiving institutional grant aid, using the 2015-16 final data set from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Financial aid by income level, ranking separately for percentage of students awarded aid and average amount of aid rewarded at five different income levels, using the 2015-16 final data set from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Net price of education, including grant and scholarship aid, using the 2015-16 final data set from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

To get the final results, schools were ranked on a weighted average of their scores across all eight categories. In the event of a tie, the “Net price of education” category was used as a tiebreaker, and the state with the lower net price was declared the winner.

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Career Magazine: The best financial aid packages for online colleges in 2019-20
The best financial aid packages for online colleges in 2019-20
With tuition costs rising, a school that helps you pay for your education can be a lifesaver. Learn about the schools doing the most to help their students here.
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