Online Diploma & Certificate Program Cost: Tuition & Fees Overview

Mar 06, 2020

This article briefly examines the differences between online and on-campus education, including general cost and tuition differentials, the expectation of additional fees for online students as opposed to on-campus students, and some tips for reducing or discounting the costs of distance learning.

Online Programs - Overview

Online programs allow students to attend class from a distance using technology-based platforms, as opposed to attending class on-campus. Many colleges and universities offer online education as part of their program offerings due to the increasing demand for distance learning programs. While diploma and certificate programs are often career focused and ideal for individuals who wish to enhance their existing career opportunities, a growing number of reputable institutions have begun offering full undergraduate and graduate programs in diverse fields ranging from business to biology.

Online Diploma and Certificate Program Costs

Costs vary based on the college, program and credit requirements. Many online programs cost about the same as the on-campus version at the same school, while other programs cost more to take online. Typically, those living in-state and attending a community college will find it is cheaper to take courses in person. However, a community college online certificate program is still going to be less expensive in most cases than a comparable state or private college's on-campus or online program.

Online and On-Campus Costs: A Survey Comparison

A 2016 survey conducted by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) dispelled the myth that online courses should cost less to produce and practice as compared to their on-campus counterparts due to a perceived need for fewer facility resources. While costs for physical accommodations may be reduced, the increased costs of technological resources and revamped teaching methods led to higher total costs for 54.2% of online students as compared to on-campus students.

Actual tuition for online education varies. For the least expensive schools, students might expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $150 per credit, which means the total tuition for a bachelor's degree could be as little as $11,000. At the higher end of the range, schools might charge $300 to $400 per credit, which could drive costs above a typical on-campus degree.

Additional Fees

Textbooks and course materials constitute additional fees ranging $250-$600 per class. Most fees do not vary between online and traditional classroom programs, with the exception of additional technology fees for online students.

A sample of direct additional fees to the student include:

  • Program application fees, which can range between $30 and $50
  • Technology fees vary wildly -- anywhere from $40 to $120 per course
  • Graduation fees pay for the degree conferral and typical land around the $100 mark
  • Assessment fees cover course placement exams and usually cost around $25

A sample of indirect additional fees to the student include:

  • Converting faculty and instructional design for distance students
  • Online examination proctoring
  • Distance tutoring

Discounts and Cost-Saving Tips

Some colleges offer tuition discounts and incentives to qualified students. Veterans and active-duty military service members may be eligible for program discounts or scholarships dependent on their state, college, program, and dates of service. These discounts may be college-specific or part of the GI Bill.

Students considering online community and state college programs may want to compare in-state as well as out-of-state colleges since residency may entitle the individual to less expensive tuition and save hundreds of dollars. Some universities also extend discounts to former students.


Recent figures show the costs of online education are generally higher for students than those associated with on-campus education, and students should take care to research available discounts and cost-saving measures.

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