Deciding whether or not to attend college can be a daunting life choice. It’s no secret that the costs of college keep getting more expensive, which may require students to take out loans or apply for grants. According to a recent report from Educationdata.org, the average cost of college in America is now $35,720 per student, per year. That number has tripled in just 20 years, thanks to an annual growth rate of about 6.8%.
That said, the cost of college may be worth it in the long run. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), those with a bachelor’s degree typically earned about $1,310 per week in 2020, while those with just a high school diploma typically earned about $780 per week. That difference in median wage can add up quickly, as can the earning potential for those with college degrees. Plus, there are ways to make college more affordable. Students can also apply for grants and scholarships, which they typically don’t have to pay back, and there are lots of good, affordable universities in America to consider as well. If you’re looking to save money on college costs, start with the top cheapest universities in the USA, listed below.
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Most Affordable States in America by Tuition
The 25 Most Affordable Universities in America for 2021
The University of Washington operates campuses in Seattle, Tacoma, and Bothell. The school serves over 54,000 students through 18 schools and colleges. UW awards more than 12,000 degrees annually. And it is recognized for its initiatives and global impact in teaching and research. UW ranks as one of the least expensive four-year degrees in the state. Roughly 60% of undergraduates receive over $400 million in financial aid. About $250 million is available in scholarships and grants. In addition to its campus-based programs, UW offers 17 affordable online degrees. Distance learning options include bachelor's degrees in early childhood and integrated social science. Full-time students can complete these programs within two years. At the master's level, students can enroll in fully online or blended programs. Options include education, management, healthcare, engineering, and information science. UW is regionally accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
Brooklyn College became part of the City University of New York system in 1961. It is the first public coeducational liberal arts college in New York City. The school enrolls over 18,000 students in approximately 75 programs. Program options include business and education. Other options include natural and behavioral sciences and humanities and social sciences. Brooklyn College has served as a pathway for success for thousands of alumni. This includes several U.S. Senators, federal judges, and Olympic medal holders. The college offers affordable tuition, interest-free payment plans. It also offers generous scholarships and financial aid packages. Brooklyn College has become increasingly selective, accepting only 40% of all applicants. First-time applicants must have an SAT score of at least 1000 or the ACT equivalent. Brooklyn College is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
Established in 1869, this Indiana-based public research university serves 43,000 students. It does so through nearly 300 programs. Purdue University administers programs in pharmacy, healthcare, veterinary medicine, and management. In 2018, the university created Purdue Online. This serves as an integrated initiative of online courses, certificates, and degrees. Purdue Online makes affordable online degrees available at the undergrad and graduate level. The university helps learners reduce costs by offering credit for work experience. It awards grants to transfer students from selected community colleges. It also provides tuition discounts for employees of partner corporations. The university grants some form of financial aid, including grants and scholarships. About 46% of new students receive aid. Purdue is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
The University of Florida is now the third-largest college in the Sunshine State. It enrolls over 52,000 students. UF offers over 100 undergraduate majors and 200 graduate programs. UF's college of engineering focuses on increasing diversity among its graduates. This is especially true for underrepresented minorities and women. The most popular fields of study at UF include marketing, business, and engineering. Additional programs include communication and biological and biomedical sciences. UF also offers over 20 online majors and five minors. Each online program at UF delivers coursework asynchronously. UF is a regionally accredited institution.
More than 35,000 students attend Oklahoma State University. It is a public land-grant university based in the mid-sized city of Stillwater. OSU offers over 300 undergraduate programs and 200 graduate programs. The school has a total of five campus locations and is available online. Established in 1890, OSU has evolved into the state's most prominent STEM-focused institution. The school is also recognized for its veterinary medicine and engineering programs. OSU offers affordable online bachelor's degrees in business, pre-law, nursing, and engineering. Most of OSU's 30 online master's degrees eliminate all on-campus requirements. OSU is one of six sun-grant universities in the nation. This means that OSU develops and supports bioenergy research and environmentally sustainable initiatives. Oklahoma State University is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the oldest public university in the country. It offers a strong, affordable education to over 19,000 students annually. The school is known as a "Public Ivy." This refers to when a public institution offers an Ivy League academic experience. UNC maintains a commitment to accessibility and affordability. It does this through several programs, including financial aid packages. UNC offers 97 bachelor's, 103 master's, and 72 doctoral degrees. Distance learning offerings include eight certificate programs, nine master's, and two doctoral degrees. Instructors deliver coursework entirely online or hybrid formats. This institution reports a 24% acceptance rate and an average SAT score of 1350. Carolina is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
California State University, Long Beach enrolls over 37,000 undergraduate and graduate students. It offers courses at its main campus in Southern California and online. CSULB boasts affordable tuition rates and high earning potential for its graduates. CSULB is a selective university, admitting 28% of applicants. Students interested in distance learning may enroll in courses and programs through CalStateOnline. This is the state system's centralized portal for distance learning. The CalStateOnine system offers 74 bachelor's, 146 master's, and 7 doctoral degrees. Students can complete these programs in fully online and hybrid formats. CSULB is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission.
Cal State LA serves over 26,000 students through 300 programs and eight schools. The school is the second-oldest member of the California State University System. It is also a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Popular undergraduate majors include criminal justice, child development, and psychology. The college's most popular graduate fields are counseling, social work, and education. Cal State LA maintains a commitment to accessible and reasonably priced education. More than half of all undergraduates qualify for tuition waivers. About 84% of undergraduates receive some form of financial aid. CalState Online offers affordable online degrees for many types of students. Career changers, career advancers, and military students should consider attending. Cal State LA is regionally accredited by the WASC.
Indiana University Bloomington is Hoosier State's flagship school. IU was established in 1820. The school now serves 48,000 students in more than 550 programs. This includes over 200 undergraduate majors on campus and online. Since 2002, IU has offered online bachelor's degrees designed for working professionals. IU's Office of Online Education provides an array of resources for distance learners. These include orientations, success coaches, and technological support. Distance learners also qualify for transfer credits toward their degree. They can use life and work experience or military training. As one of the most affordable schools in the state, IU works with students to manage costs. About 64% of undergraduates receive grants or scholarships. IU is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
The University of Illinois at Chicago is the city's only public research university. It was created in 1982 through the merger of two different schools. UIC operates 16 separate academic colleges. It also has a well-regarded hospital system and a medical school. UIC offers 86 undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts, life sciences, and the arts. It also offers degrees in education, engineering, and public health. Students can earn graduate degrees in 111 master's and 66 doctoral programs. UIC offers 15 fully online undergraduate programs in business administration, English, and mathematics. Besides online degrees, students may pursue a "stackable" online certificate. Stackable programs allow students to earn credits that they may reuse. They can use these to fulfill academic credits for a bachelor's or advanced degree. UIC is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
UC San Diego enrolls 39,000 students in over 200 undergraduate and graduate programs. It was established in 1960. The school operates four undergraduate colleges and seven graduate and professional schools This selective "Public Ivy" has earned a reputation for academic excellence. Students at UC San Diego enjoy rigorous educational training and high graduation rates. They also enjoy low average student debt at graduation and ample financial support. Approximately 58% of all students receive at least one grant or scholarship. Many programs permit students to enroll in online classes as part of their degree. The UC San Diego Extension Division, offers 4,000 classes and 100 certificates. It caters to non-degree seekers and working professionals. UC San Diego is regionally accredited by WASC.
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis formed in 1969. IUPUI enrolls 29,000 learners in over 450 undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs. The university operates 17 separate schools and two colleges. Fields of study include medicine, public health, law, and business. Other fields include social work, engineering, and the liberal arts. IUPUI has also developed more than 140 affordable online degrees and certificates programs. Distance learners receive support from an array of technological and academic services. The university strives to keep education affordable by keeping tuition reasonably priced. It helps students manage debt and helps low-income applicants receive financial aid. IUPUI awards some form of need-based aid to approximately 63% of full-time undergraduates. IUPUI is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is the second-largest Hispanic-Serving Institution in the United States. It describes itself as “bilingual, bicultural, and biliterate." UTRGV began operations in 2015 following the merger of three border region schools. UTRGV offers 120 bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees at 13 schools and colleges. The school offers online bachelor's degrees, master's, and certificates. Students complete these degrees fully online or in hybrid format. Many programs deliver courses on an accelerated seven-week schedule. UTRGV tuition ranks among the lowest of all public universities in Texas. The school guarantees not to increase tuition for up to four years. It also caps tuition at 12 semester credits. This allows students to take up to two more courses per semester at no additional cost. UTRGV is regionally accredited by SACSCOC.
California State University, Fresno became part of the state university system in 1961. It began as a teacher's college in 1911, and it acquired university status in 1972. The university has expanded into a public institution that enrolls 25,000 students. Fresno State offers 60 bachelor's degrees, 45 master's, and three doctoral programs. It does so through eight schools and colleges. The Department of Education has designated Fresno State as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. It is also an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution. Students interested in distance learning may pursue several certificates, bachelor's, and graduate degrees. CalStateOnline offers affordable online degrees, available fully online or in blended formats. Online coursework offers the same curriculum as campus-based programs. Fresno State is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission.
Harvard University was founded in 1636 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Harvard is recognized internationally for its schools of business, medicine, law, and government. Harvard enrolls over 36,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. One of the most selective schools in the nation, Harvard accepts only 5% of applicants. Harvard provides an exceptional undergraduate education at a surprisingly affordable price. About 55% of full-time undergraduates receive some form of need-based financial aid. Students from low-income backgrounds qualify for an exemption or reduction in costs. Harvard offers several distance learning opportunities. These include online bachelor's degrees, graduate degrees and certificates, and individual courses. Harvard is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.
University of California, Los Angeles provides an education comparable to Ivy League schools. The school is part of the 10-campus University of California System. It enrolls 44,000 learners. Students attend one of its undergraduate schools, health science schools, or professional schools. Several individual programs offer online courses, certificates, and full degrees. Students often enhance their campus-based learning experience by taking online classes. Other University of California schools offer these courses. UCLA remains committed to affordable and accessible education. The school provides grants that cover tuition and fees for California residents. Family incomes for these students must fall below $80,000. UCLA is regionally accredited by the Western Association of Colleges and Schools.
California State University, Northridge serves a student population of 38,000 in approximately 150 different programs. The school offers online bachelor’s degrees, graduate programs, and certificates. Working adults seeking career advancement can complete online undergraduate and graduate degrees. They do this through CSUN's Tseng College of Graduate, International, and Midcareer Education. CSUN is an affordable school for undergraduates. It awards grants or scholarships to over half of all incoming first-year students. The school is a Hispanic-Serving Institution. CSUN promotes inclusion and accessibility for its diverse student body. The school's innovative Educational Opportunity Program helps first-generation, low-income students achieve academic success. CSUN is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission.
The University of Michigan is one of the most respected universities in the country. Serving 48,000 students, U-M offers more than 250 programs through 19 schools and colleges. This selective enrollment school grants admission to less than 25% of applicants. U-M provides undergraduates with a quality education comparable to an Ivy League school. But it does this at a much lower price. U-M awards financial aid to 70% of in-state applicants. Students whose families earn less than $65,000 annually receive free tuition. Individual departments administer and establish their own admission and curriculum requirements. Students may also enroll in online courses through U-M's Dearborn and Flint campuses. U-M is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
The University of South Florida operates three separate campuses in Tampa, Sarasota, and Saint Petersburg. USF offers over 200 different programs. USF also offers several distance learning degrees. Some of USF's 30 online graduate degrees require on-campus components. The university's online bachelor's degrees are available entirely online or in hybrid formats. Majors include information studies, nursing, public health, criminal justice, and criminology. USF strives to make education accessible and affordable. The school earns recognition for its initiatives directed at under-represented and lower-income students. The school measures success through its retention of graduating students from disadvantaged backgrounds. USF is regionally accredited by SASCOC.
The University of California, Riverside is one of 10 schools within the University of California System. It is an affordable public research institution that serves a student body of over 25,000. UC Riverside offers nearly 200 different programs across five separate schools. UCR Extension serves as the university's distance learning department. It offers more than 400 online classes and professional certificate programs. UC Riverside is committed to diversity and inclusion. It offers scholarships that enable academic success for students from many backgrounds. There are special initiatives for first generation college students and previously incarcerated learners. The same is true for students from low income families and underrepresented groups. More than 75% of full-time undergraduates receive some form of need-based financial aid. UC Riverside is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission.
Utah Valley University is a combined community college and public teaching university. The school provides career-focused training alongside quality academic programs. It began in 1941 as Central Utah Vocational School. Utah's largest and fastest-growing university, UVU enrolls close to 41,000 students. It is one of eight public colleges and universities in the Utah System of Higher Education. UVU offers open admission to all who apply. UVU also provides affordable tuition and financial aid to qualifying students. The university offers degrees in the humanities, social sciences, and engineering and technology. Other degrees include the arts, education, and business. UVU also provides 13 online bachelor's degrees in high demand majors. These include aviation science, criminal justice, nursing, and business. UVU is regionally accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
The University of Texas at Austin has emerged as the flagship school in the University of Texas System. One of the largest schools in the nation, UT Austin enrolls more than 51,000 students. The university operates 18 colleges. It offers 156 undergrad programs and 139 graduate programs in 170 fields of study. UT Austin offers several distance learning opportunities, including MOOCs and online classes. Topics include business, management, the humanities, and engineering. This institution provides an education comparable to an Ivy League school. But it offers it at a public-university price. UT Austin recently introduced the Texas Advance Commitment program. This awards full tuition to in-state undergraduates whose families make $65,000 a year or less. It also provides partial tuition for students from families earning up to $125,000. UT Austin is regionally accredited by SACSCOC.
Established in 1957, California State University, Fullerton, enrolls close to 40,000 students. This makes it the largest university in the 23-campus California State University System. This university offers 120 bachelor's, 118 master's, and three doctoral degrees. It also offers 19 teaching certifications. In total, the school offers 240 separate areas of study. Individual academic divisions offer evening, weekend, online, and hybrid programs, including several certificates. Cal State Fullerton provides support for first-generation college students and lower income students. Cal State is a Hispanic-Serving Institution. It is also an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution. The school provides financial assistance and other initiatives that foster academic success. Cal State Fullerton is accredited by the Western Association of Colleges and Schools.
The University of California, Irvine serves over 36,000 students in 200 programs. It was established in 1965. Later, UCI joined the Association of American Universities in 1996. This makes it the youngest school to hold membership. The school accepts only 37% of all applicants. Nearly 8% of all students enroll in at least one class online. The university's continuing education division offers several online and hybrid programs. This affordable "Public Ivy" university awards several merit and need-based scholarships and grants. UCI encourages qualified students with undocumented immigration status to apply for financial aid. They can do so through the California Dream Act. UCI covers tuition and fees for students with income below $80,000. UCI is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission.
New Mexico State University offers academic, technical, vocational, and continuing education programs. It was established in 1888 as Las Cruces College. The school's main campus is in Las Cruces, and it offers online classes. NMSU's 15,000 students pursue approximately 175 different programs. The school is known for its innovative and creative programs. NMSU enables students to explore topics in conservation ecology and professional golf management. NMSU Online has developed over 70 affordable online degrees. Students can also complete graduate certificates and vocational programs online. NMSU provides tuition assistance, scholarships, and grants to those in need. Over 67% of undergraduates receive need-based financial aid. NMSU is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
At Best Value Schools, we help students of all ages get the best possible value for their education. When choosing the best schools and programs, we prioritize tuition rates, student debt, financial aid opportunities, graduation rates, and the availability of online programs.
We source unbiased data from government and educational databases like the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 6,374 schools across the U.S. We organize that data into five weighted categories to compile our school rankings.
Full-time faculty percentage, student-to-faculty ratio, student retention and graduation rates
Tuition rates, median student debt, and financial aid
Admission and enrollment rates
Number of program options
Online Enrollment Score
Portion of learners taking at least one online course
You can read more about our comprehensive evaluation process on our methodology page.
Have Questions About Affordable Universities? We Have Answers.
Filling out the FAFSA is a good place to start your search for financial aid. Most scholarships and grants rely on your FAFSA information to determine how much aid you are eligible to receive.
When can I apply for financial aid at my university?
FAFSA forms are available each year starting October 1. However, schools and scholarship programs maintain their own deadlines.
Do I really need to apply for financial aid every year?
Yes. You must file the FAFSA every year. Private scholarship programs follow their own regulations regarding renewals; however, many require an annual filing for financial aid packages.
What is the income limit for the FAFSA in 2020?
There is actually no official income cut-off to qualify for federal student aid, according to studentaid.gov. The federal government looks at many different factors, like the size of family and school year.
Is college financial aid free?
Some college financial aid does not have to be paid back, but some financial aid, like loans, will have to be paid back. You can check into grants and scholarships if you are looking for money that generally does not need to be repaid.
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When most people refer to college degrees, they’re talking about bachelor’s degrees, which are degrees you earn in about four to five years after graduating from high school or obtaining your GED. That said, there are many other types of degrees you can pursue. Many cheap colleges offer either four-year bachelor’s degrees or two-year associate’s degrees, though it depends on the college. At the graduate level, students can opt to obtain master’s degrees or terminal doctoral degrees, which are higher-level degrees that help students specialize even further in their field.
The main benefit of earning a college degree is that it allows you to focus your career toward certain fields that interest you and helps you stand out against the competition when looking for jobs. College programs typically aren’t just focused on your area of major, though — at least not at the undergraduate level. Bachelor’s programs and associate’s programs will have general education requirements you have to meet, like composition and math, along with major courses that teach you the core topics of what you are going to school to learn.
If you’re looking for the degree requirements for cheap universities, it’s important to understand that the requirements for both admission and graduation will vary based on the school and program you choose. If you are thinking of attending a certain university, make sure to review their admission requirements carefully.
That said, there are some common requirements you’ll likely need to meet to enroll in any program. For example, there will likely be minimum high school GPA requirements and SAT or ACT testing requirements for incoming students, though some campuses or programs with open admission — or some community colleges — may have looser requirements.
To enroll in a school or program, you will often have to submit high school transcripts, extracurricular activities, standardized testing scores, and in some cases, an admissions essay. College admission staff often take into account the whole profile of each student when making an admission decision.
When it comes to specific degree requirements, college degrees will typically list how many course hours students must complete, and may also outline what classes are required to graduate. Most associate’ degree will require you to complete about 60 credit hours to earn your degree. Bachelor’s degrees typically require 120 credit hours to graduate. Master’s degrees can require anywhere from 30 to 40 credit hours to graduate, and doctoral degree requirements can vary from 60 to 120 credit hours depending on the field.
You can generally earn all types of degrees remotely, which is a huge perk for those who are trying to further their education while still working or attending to other responsibilities. The cheapest colleges online typically offer a wide range of degree options and majors as well.
The Average Cost of College Tuition
Public colleges and universities in the United States receive state funding from taxes paid by residents, making them some of the cheapest universities in the USA. Public universities prioritize in-state students who are part of that tax-paying public. As such, out-of-state students generally pay much higher tuition.
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that in-state students paid an average of $9,212 in tuition and fees for the 2018-2019 academic year. Meanwhile, out-of-state students paid an average of $26,382.
Each state maintains its own criteria for determining a student’s residency status. Proof of residency may include a record of tax payments, full-time employment within the state, or an occupational or state license. Some states also participate in reciprocity agreements that allow each member’s students to enroll as in-state learners.
Research the in-state residency requirements at your chosen school. In-state tuition can make your college degree much more affordable.
Common Core Courses
The courses you are required to take will depend on your major, but in general, nearly all college students are required to take core courses to graduate. These classes typically include:
Nearly all degrees require you to take college algebra as part of your core curriculum. In this course, you will learn about concepts like polynomials, inequalities, functions, and other algebra-related concepts. You’ll also gain a deeper insight into the core algebra concepts that you will build upon in higher-level math courses.
You will use written communication on a regular basis after graduation, which is why college composition is one of the core courses you’re required to take in college. In this course, you will learn to refine your writing and further your ability to develop and articulate your ideas. This course typically requires several essays, which will require you to go through the process of drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading your work.
You will also typically be required to take and pass at least one foreign language class. Most programs allow you to choose your own language class to take, but common options include Spanish, French, Chinese, and American Sign Language, among others.
Career and Salary Outlook for College Graduates
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), professionals with a bachelor’s degree earn almost 30% higher salaries than professionals with a two-year associate degree. Professionals with a bachelor’s degree in 2020 also saw a lower unemployment rate (5.5%) than professionals with an associate degree (7.1%), some college but no degree (8.3%), and a high school diploma (9.0%).
In addition to education, the state where you work can impact your salary, according to the BLS. Bachelor’s graduates in Washington, D.C. earn approximately 17% more than their counterparts in Virginia. Experience level also impacts salaries. For example, architects at the beginning of their careers earn significantly lower salaries ($49,000) than those with 20 years of experience ($90,000), according to PayScale.
Financial Aid for Students
The FAFSA plays an important role in your search for financial aid. It provides government agencies, colleges and universities, and private nonprofits with information that may qualify you for a scholarship or grant program.
Most colleges and universities maintain scholarship programs for different types of students, including athletes and high-achieving learners. Many schools also administer private scholarships for students from specific ethnic groups or socioeconomic backgrounds.
If you still need to take out a loan, consider a direct subsidized loan from the government first. Undergraduate students with demonstrable financial need usually qualify for this type of loan, which maintains a lower interest rate than other loans.
You can also take out a direct unsubsidized loan that does not require financial need as a qualification. The government pays for the interest of your direct subsidized loan during specified times. However, this is not the case for direct unsubsidized loans.
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Scholarships for College Students
An affordable college education is still a strong investment. Every year, students can apply for more than $120 billion in federal grants and scholarships that they do not have to pay back.
Who Can Apply: Administered by the American Bus Association, this scholarship accepts applications from students pursuing a degree in transportation, travel, or tourism. Applicants must submit a 500-word essay about their career goals.
Who Can Apply: Applicants must be full-time students with diagnosed bilateral moderate to profound hearing loss. Applicants must also be enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program at an accredited college or university. They must use listening and spoken language as primary communication mode.
Who Can Apply: The ASID accepts applications from undergraduate and graduate students pursuing a degree in design, fine arts, or a related field. Applicants must submit an abstract of their work and a personal essay.
Who Can Apply: This program welcomes applications from Hispanic students enrolled in an accredited two-year or four-year institution pursuing a degree in a STEM or health/medical field. Applicants must have a minimum 3.0 GPA.
Michelle Lovrine Honeyager is a freelance writer living in Southeast Wisconsin who covers education topics for Best Value Schools, Grad School Hub, and Criminal Justice Degree Schools, among others.
Angelica Leicht is the schools editor at Best Value Schools who oversees our college rankings, school profiles, and other higher education coverage. She previously served as an education reporter at Kearney Hub, and an editor at the Dallas Observer and Houston Press. Her writing has appeared in Affordable Colleges Online, Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, and elsewhere.
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