Are Online Degrees Cheaper Than Traditional Studies?

Online degrees are all the rage right now, and that’s not only due to the current pandemic. Even before this year became an endless series of online meetings, courses, and Netflix binge watching (don’t deny it), online study programmes were increasing in popularity.

The main reasons are obvious: a lot of flexibility and convenience, the ability to study at your own pace, the opportunity to re-watch a class whenever you want, and so on.

But here’s the big question: are online degrees cheaper than traditional studies? Well, sometimes yes, but the truth is, it depends on way too many factors. So, keep on reading as we analyse the true costs of studying online compared to studying on-campus.

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Typical costs associated with studying abroad

Before we dive right in, let’s quickly list the most common costs associated with studying abroad:

  • tuition fees
  • transport
  • accommodation
  • utilities
  • food costs
  • books and study materials
  • health insurance
  • English language test fee
  • student visa fee
  • entertainment (e.g. parties, concerts, cinema, trips)

You can add other items to this list, like the monthly mobile data plan or local internet. But the costs we’ve mentioned above are the most significant while studying at home or abroad.

1. Online degrees vs traditional studies – tuition fees

Tuition often represents the highest cost of studying abroad. How much you pay as an international student depends on various factors:

  • where you study (country, city)
  • your nationality
  • chosen specialisation
  • type of degree: Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhD
  • duration of studies: anywhere from 1 to 5 years, sometimes more

With these aspects in mind, are online degrees cheaper?

Well, it depends. In general, yes — you should expect to pay less because universities can offer online programmes using fewer resources and staff. But this doesn’t mean online degrees are always less expensive. Let’s look at a concrete example:

You can notice the main difference is at the expensive extreme, where traditional academic programmes usually come at a much higher cost. Still, various countries and universities offer free or affordable studies, both online and on-campus.

Good to know: most universities only offer free (0 EUR) courses to EU/EEA students. The main exceptions are Germany and Norway, where all international students can study for free regardless of their nationality.

Conclusion: it’s a narrow win for online degrees. Keep in mind that while these are usually cheaper, the difference largely depends on where and what you want to study.

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Universities offering affordable online degrees

Here’s a list with several universities that offer free or cheap online courses:

Woman smiling at her laptop while studying online

2. Online degrees vs traditional studies – transportation costs

A recent study has revealed that studying abroad implies travelling abroad — all jokes aside, you will need to make travel plans if you decide to enrol at a university in another country.

The amount you pay on the airplane or train tickets can start at a few hundred euros and reach over 1,000. If you decide to study at one of the neighbour countries, you can also persuade your parents or friends to drive you over. In this case, the money will go into gas.

With online degrees, it’s simple: there’s no travelling because you’re not going anywhere. You’ll study from home, and that’s all there is to it. Of courses, there are also blended studies: most of the work is done from home, but you will have to go on-campus every now and then, which will imply additional transport costs.

Conclusion: an easy win for online degrees.

3. Online degrees vs traditional studies – accommodation costs

For students who decide to study abroad, accommodation represents the second most important expense after tuition fees. Options include:

  • University or student dormitories: usually the cheapest option, often sharing a room with other students (1, 2, or 3, it really depends)
  • Renting a flat: more expensive, but without the strict campus rules; you can share one with other students to reduce the overall costs
  • Living with a local family: much cheaper than renting a flat, but it’s not an option in every country. You also need to make sure you all get along, but it’s a good opportunity to learn and get to know the locals and their way of life.

For those who choose an online programme, there are a few common situations:

  • Owning a place: no rent, just make sure you pay the taxes, and monthly utilities
  • Renting a flat: local rent might be cheaper than renting an apartment while studying abroad, so you can still end up saving money
  • Living with your parents: it might sound… uncomfortable or at least undesirable but hear me out. If you have a good relationship with your parents and this option is available, you should consider it. Moving out is great, and so is independence. But spending most of your hard-earned money on rent or mortgage isn’t always the wisest decision. By living for a few years with your parents, you can put money aside and maybe buy your own place or invest in a profitable business.

Conclusion: another victory for online degrees.

4. Online degrees vs traditional studies – food costs

While it’s true that food and groceries might be more expensive abroad, that’s not always the case. And if you know how to cook, look for discounts, and spend wisely, everything will be fine.

Your budget could easily explode if you go out all the time, order food, and so on. But yet again, this can also happen while you stay at home and study online. So…

Conclusion: it’s a draw.

5. Online degrees vs traditional studies – books and study materials

Books often don’t make it on the international students’ list of expenses. But they should! Not all universities offer all the necessary study materials, and these can quickly add up to anywhere between 50 and 200 EUR per semester.

For students who enrol in online courses, things are a bit different. Most of the academic material is available online and easy to access. However, you might need to invest in additional software (programmes, applications) or even hardware (e.g. you might need to buy a more performant laptop or PC to run specialised software, like Adobe Premiere Pro, CAD, or Virtual Machines).

Conclusion: it’s close, so let’s call it a draw.

6. Online degrees vs traditional studies – health insurance

Health insurance is yet another expense you need to think about. You can encounter one of the following situations:

  • Study abroad in the EU/EEA: if you study in the European Union (EU) or the European Economic Area (EEA), you don’t need to pay for health insurance as long as you come from another EU/EEA country; just make sure you have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). But if you come from a non-EU/EEA country, you do need to pay for a private health insurance plan.
  • Study abroad outside of the EU/EEA: if you study in any other part of the world, like the US, Canada, China, Australia, you need to pay for medical insurance no matter where you come from.
  • Study an online degree: in many countries, citizens get free insurance cover during their studies. But this usually applies if you enrol at traditional brick and mortar universities and attend on-campus courses. This means you might still need to cover private health insurance or pay for public health insurance from your own pockets, even if you study online, in your native country.

Conclusion: yet another draw.

Student taking notes while studying online

7. Online degrees vs traditional studies – English language tests

It doesn’t matter if you choose online degrees or traditional on-campus studies. You will need to prove your English skills to study an English-taught degree. Most universities and colleges accept one of the following proficiency tests; prices vary based on the country and test centre:

Learn more about the structure and differences between IELTS vs TOEFL vs PTE Academic.

Conclusion: it’s a draw — do you notice a pattern here?

8. Online degrees vs traditional studies – visa costs

To study abroad, you will likely need to apply and receive a student visa. There are some exceptions, of course. For example, EU/EEA students don’t need a visa to study in an EU/EEA country. But in most other situations, students do need to apply for one.

A student visa can cost anywhere between 50 to over 300 EUR, not to mention the time you need to spend during the visa process. In many cases, you also need to prove you have health insurance covered and enough money to live and study in that country.

Conclusion: an obvious win for online degrees, for which you don’t need any visa.

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9. Online degrees vs traditional studies – entertainment costs

It doesn’t matter where you’ll study or what you’ll study — you still need to have fun, go out with friends, watch your favourite bands perform live, and so on. And all these things cost money, but they are well worth it. #noregrets #yolo

How much you spend depends on:

  • your favourite entertaining and social activities (e.g. concerts, sports, trips)
  • where you live
  • lifestyle (e.g. how often you go out)

Some people go out more, some less. Some prefer relaxing cafes, while others choose fancy restaurants. Whether it’s an escape room, a bike ride, a wild party, or a short trip, you’ll normally spend less in your own country; but even if you go abroad, you might spend the same or even less — it all depends on the economy and prices of the country where you’ll study.

International students can spend anywhere between 70 to 300 EUR per month on entertainment and social activities. Those who choose online degrees, might get away with spending only 50–150 EUR.

Conclusion: a narrow win for online degrees, but remember: study hard, play hard, no matter where you are.

Conclusions about online vs on-campus study costs

So, are online degrees cheaper than traditional studies?

If hearing “It depends” isn’t good enough, then we’ll settle for saying “Yes, they can be. But it’s not a given.”

And it’s true. There are way too many financial factors involved in studying a degree offered by a university from abroad, regardless of the type of degree (online vs on-campus). You might be able to save on one side but lose money on the other side. For example:

  • If you study a free on-campus degree in Finland but pay around 700–1,000 EUR per month on living costs, you can end up spending around 25,000–36,000 EUR over a 3-year period. Not exactly cheap!
  • If you study a free online degree from the comfort of your home, you still need to take care of monthly living costs. But those are usually much lower, around 200–500 EUR, depending on where you live.
  • You can also study an online degree that costs over 10,000 EUR per academic year. Over a 3-year period, that’s 30,000 EUR plus the monthly living expenses. So, you can end up spending more or just as much as you would in our first example.

In the end, it’s all about what you study, where you study, and how flexible your budget is.

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