Edit: This post was initially written in spring 2015. It has been updated to reflect current tuition rates for spring 2017.
I recently stumbled across an individual in my online circles who had noted on her resume that she earned an Associate of Arts & Sciences degree from a big name for-profit online university. I couldn’t fathom why anyone in their right mind would do such a thing. On the positive side, the school is regionally accredited, but it certainly comes with a cost. I mean a BIG cost. There are clearly more affordable options, so I am perplexed as to why anyone would choose otherwise.
Upon finding this resume, I decided to do a little digging. As a community college instructor, I know students can earn the same degree at my institution for far less than at an online for-profit school. But what are the numbers? In an age of information, anyone can acquire tuition rates for schools. Because an Associates Degree generally covers the lower level general education courses, they’re all very similar. Yes, there are applied sciences degrees that do differ, but those are not usually designed for transfer. In looking at the good ol’ fashioned bread and butter Associates Degree, one can see that there are certainly affordable options when comparing similar online programs across schools.
Let’s start by examining my home institution. I teach full-time at Rappahannock Community College in Virginia. A quick look at our tuition and fees page shows that tuition for a Virginia resident is $137.75 per credit. With 61 credits in the degree program, that works out to be $8,402.75 in total tuition, not including fees. Since we’re talking about online programs, it’s certainly feasible for an out-of-state student to enroll. Tuition for that individual would be $314.35 per credit, or $19,175.35 for the degree. The out-of-state rate may seem ridiculous compared to the in-state rate, but it is still less than some other schools out there.
The University of Phoenix is the largest provider of online education in the United States. It’s also one of the most expensive. It’s tuition and fees page provides the following data. For the Associate of Arts in General Studies program, tuition is $410 per credit, and at 60 credits, comes to a total of $24,600. As you can see, that’s clearly more expensive than attending a community college as an out-of-state online student.
Kaplan is another major online institution. Like the University of Phoenix, it offers the Associates Degree. The difference with Kaplan, however, is that it uses a quarter credit hour system rather than a semester credit hour system. (A three credit course in a semester system would be equivalent to a 4.5 credit course in a quarter system.) Because of the differences in the credit hours, an Associate degree at Kaplan is 90 credits. According to Kaplan’s tuition and fees page, the degree would cost $33,390, which works out to be $371 per quarter credit hour. Ouch!
It should be noted, however, that not all for-profit schools that provide online instruction are ridiculously expensive. The American Public University System, which divides into American Public University and American Military University, is more friendly to wallets. They offer various Associate Degrees which are $270 per credit. At 61 credits, that’s $16,470. That’s less than the rate of an out-of-state student at my institution and less than half that of Kaplan.
The question still remains, however. Why would anyone enroll in a major online for-profit university for an Associates Degree? That’s why we have community colleges! I can sing the praises of RCC until the cows come home, but we are certainly not the only community college in the country that offers online options. Consider Clovis Community College out of New Mexico. Clovis is one of the most affordable schools in the nation. At $111 per credit hour for an out-of-state student, it’s a logical choice. For a 62 credit degree, the cost would be $6,882. That’s about a sixth of the cost of Kaplan’s degree, and a little more than a fourth of the cost of University of Phoenix. Furthermore, if a student enrolled online at Clovis full-time, the cost would be even less, as 13-18 credits are charged at the same rate as 12 credits.
I still don’t know, and probably never will know, why that individual chose such an expensive school for a degree she could’ve earned elsewhere for far less. Perhaps she got sucked in by advertising. Perhaps she didn’t shop around. What I do know is that there ARE options, and as consumers, we need to be aware of them. If we can shop around for cars, surely we can, and should, do the same for an online degree program. With student loan debt soaring, prospective students need to be aware of their options. Why not pay less?