In a job market saturated with bachelor’s degree holders, Millennials and Gen Xers need to work harder than ever to differentiate themselves. While a master’s degree can certainly help you stand out, obtaining your PhD remains a distinguished accomplishment in almost any field.
Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to set your sights on this lofty goal: the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of doctoral degree holders has more than doubled to 4.5 million since 2000, fueled in no small part by the growing number of online postgraduate programs offered by regionally and nationally accredited institutions. Where online degrees were once viewed with skepticism, this ongoing shift makes it clear: not only is web-based learning at the postgraduate level here to stay, but it’s also a valid way to earn your doctoral degree while juggling other priorities in your life.
Despite the proliferation of programs and convenience offered by online learning, cost remains a barrier to many who wish to further their education. Don’t let it stand in your way: it’s possible to earn your PhD without breaking the bank. Start your journey toward joining the growing number of American doctoral degree holders today by reviewing our list of the cheapest online doctorate programs.
5 Most Affordable PhD Programs
|1||Texas Tech University||Lubbock, Texas|
|2||New Mexico State University||Las Cruces, New Mexico|
|3||California Coast University||Santa Ana, California|
|4||Valdosta State University||Valdosta, Georgia|
|5||The American College of Education||Indianapolis, Indiana|
How Much Do Online PhD Degrees Cost?
In short, it depends. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the median tuition and fees paid to several types of universities in 2020-21 were as follows:
- Public Institution: $12,394
- Private, for-profit institution: $14,301
- Private, nonprofit institution: $28,445
While these figures represent broad costs associated with postgraduate degrees, they’re helpful as a starting point for comparison. However, finding the cheapest online PhD can be challenging because costs are influenced by many factors, including the subject area you intend to study and the school where you’d like to earn your degree.
Some of the factors to consider include length of program and per-credit costs. For example, one online doctoral degree program focused on education could take three years to complete and cost approximately $86,000, while another requires only two years of full-time coursework at a cost of roughly $47,500.
Fortunately, some of the cheapest online doctorate programs can be completed for less than $300 per credit.
How Long Will It Take to Earn a PhD Online?
In general, you should expect to spend three to seven years working toward your online doctorate degree, but again, many factors can influence where your experience lands on this spectrum, including what you’re studying and where you’re studying it. Some institutions offer accelerated programs that promise a degree in as little as two years; others will allow you to transfer credits from another school, helping you save time and money.
Why Attend an Online PhD Program?
According to a United Nations study, 85 percent of American males and 67 percent of American females work more than 40 hours per week. Fortunately, the cheapest online PhD programs are often flexible: you can complete your coursework and watch lectures from anywhere with a computer and an Internet connection. No need to waste hours commuting or show up a sweaty mess after running to class from your parking spot halfway across campus. Eliminating the need to choose between family and work obligations or furthering your education and career makes online learning a great option for working professionals, parents, or those who do not live within easy commuting distance of a program.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that most online doctorate programs still require some element of in-person participation. For example, you will still likely need to appear on campus to defend your dissertation against the faculty, or to attend required symposiums. Some programs may also require you to spend an occasional weekend “in residency” on campus. Treat these as opportunities not only to meet faculty and classmates face-to-face but to grow your network – you never know where your next opportunity might come from.
Typical Benefits of Online Courses vs On-Campus Learning: Summary
- No commuting for bulk of the program
- Complete coursework on your schedule
- Continue working full-time while you study
What Can I Do with an Online PhD Degree?
There are a variety of degree options available to PhD students:
- Doctor of Arts (D.A.)
- Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
- Doctor of Business Management (PhD)
- Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
- Doctor of Theology (Th.D.)
- Doctor of Public Health (DPH)
No matter the degree you choose to pursue, remember that a PhD is mostly focused on research: as you complete your initial coursework, you’ll be expected to formulate a position around some aspect of your field. From there, you’ll complete a document called a dissertation, which takes years and requires copious research. To finally obtain your PhD, you’ll need to orally defend the position in your dissertation against a board of faculty members attempting to disprove your argument. It’s a rigorous process designed to prepare you for a research-centric career.
For an in-depth look at possible career paths, check out Indeed.com’s list of 38 careers that require a doctoral degree. We’ve gathered ten for you below, excluding roles from medical and legal fields:
- Professor: About $61,100 a year
- Anthropologist: About $61,100 a year
- College or University Administrator: About $66,000 a year
- Psychometrician: About $69,300 a year
- Linguist: About $82,600 a year
- Historian: About $84,000 a year
- Statistician: About $99,200 a year
- Systems Engineer: About $99,400 a year
- Research Scientist: About $111,400 a year
- Psychiatrist: About $113,200 a year
PhD Degree Salary Information
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for PhD and professional doctorate holders in 2021 was about $98,800 ($1,900 weekly).
Tips for Managing Costs While Attending an Online PhD Program
Even the cheapest online PhD programs will likely require most students to find financial assistance. Fortunately, there are several ways to reduce the cost of your degree before considering a loan.
- Scholarships, Grants, and Fellowships – For graduate school, there simply aren’t as many opportunities for scholarships and financial aid as there are for undergrads. One way to help keep track of the opportunities that do exist is a scholarship spreadsheet: use this to track scholarships you’ve applied for as well as their requirements. Many can be quite specific, but there are some scholarships that are awarded more broadly. Meanwhile, fellowships are short-term programs that can help cover some of your costs, and may even provide a stipend. However, many of these programs are very competitive and can require significant commitments.
- Budgeting – Creating and sticking to a budget can be challenging, but it’s a key way to help you graduate with as little debt as possible – not to mention a generally helpful life skill. Small, recurring expenses can be easy to overlook on a day-to-day basis, but with a budget in place, it’s much easier to step back and look at the big picture to understand where your money is going each month.
- Loans – Once you’ve done everything you can between scholarships, fellowships, and budgeting, it’s time to consider loans. Make sure to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year. If there are still financial gaps, a private graduate student loan can help you make it happen.
The Top 10 Cheapest Online PhD Programs
Texas Tech University
Since 1923 Texas Tech has been an institution in Lubbock, Texas. It was originally established as an institution to study and assist advancement in agriculture. Since then, the university has grown to offer multiple academic programs, among them well-established doctorate programs. Texas Tech has been well-engaged with building and offering online Ph.D. programs as well. Specifically, Texas Tech currently offers the following:
Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Agriculture Education
Doctor of Education in Higher Education
Doctor of Philosophy in Systems and Engineering Management
Doctor of Philosophy in Technical Communication and Rhetoric
Among these programs, the Ph.D. in Education is the lowest cost, charging close to a community college price with a rate of $166.50 per credit. However, you do need to be an in-state resident. Otherwise, the cost jumps to a still affordable value of $274 per credit. The program, however, isn’t entirely online. Doctoral students do have to spend at least one week on campus a year and take an intensive phase in the program. Overall, the Ph.D. program takes 60 credits total and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
New Mexico State University
One of the oldtimers in terms of institutions created before 1900, New Mexico University has been a longtime resident of Las Cruces in the state, and it joins the modern world of digital education programs with at least four different online Ph.D. programs:
Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Educational Leadership
Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Leadership
Doctor of Philosophy in Curriculum and Instruction
Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing
In terms of cost, New Mexico State offers affordable degree programs, only charging $278.60/credit as its state tuition for graduate classes. However, only state residents get the benefit of this low cost. Out of state students will have to be pay close to three times the resident cost. Regional residents who may qualify for multi-state education agreements might realize different prices as well, depending on their location.
Similar to other schools, the doctorate programs at New Mexico State are either in the education field or in nursing. The length of the programs varies with a standard near 63 units while the Education Leadership degree is much longer totaling 78 credits. Each of the programs has some kind of in-person requirement, typically associated with the dissertation defense or orientation. New Mexico State University in general is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of College and Schools, but their education degree programs vary a bit. The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education is the basis for the Education Ph.D. program’s validity.
California Coast University
An outlier among universities, California Coast University is a far younger institution that started in 1973. Operating its physical campus in Orange County, Southern California, the school offers three distinct online doctorate programs with a low cost of $290/credit. These programs include:
Doctor of Education in Educational Administration
Doctor of Education in Educational Psychology
Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership
All of these California Coast University Ed.D. programs focus on leadership as a common theme, whether the coursework centers on management or the organization of the educational institution. As part of this training, doctoral students will gain competency in and detailed exposure to educational thinking, measurement tools, scientific research interpretation, and analytical practice in how society and life impact education. The school’s distance learning programs are verified and accredited to graduate standards via the Distance Education Accreditation Commission.
Valdosta State University
Situated in, aptly named, Valdosta, Georgia, the same-named State University has been teaching students since it opened in 1906. In a different path than the usual education-oriented programs, Valdosta provides a Ph.D. in Public Administration instead. This program will run a student $293/credit for attending and completion. The program itself uses coursework to train graduates on four core areas of public policy administration: analysis, leadership, communication, and management. Much of the program assumes the candidate already has a significant amount of experience in public administration and focuses on the specialization and enhancement of that experience with graduate-level training. Overall, students will spend 54 credit hours before completing the program, which includes a capstone project. There are residency seminars for in-person training which involve a one-week period each semester on campus.
Enrollment requires prospective students to have a master’s degree from a prior university and is the baseline requirement for acceptance into the doctorate program. GRE scores and an acceptable GPA are also necessary. Applicants can also expect to need to show their work experience on a robust resume, provide a statement of why the program is chosen and what will be done with the training in terms of goals, and three recommendation letters. The school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), including the online doctorate.
The American College of Education
The American College has been an aggressive player in distance learning higher education for quite a few years now, even though the institution was only established in 2005. With a restricted focus to just education programs, the American College offers both master’s degree and doctorate level training for students, providing multiple paths for advancement in education leadership roles. The cost of attendance in the Ph.D. program is currently $336/credit.
Similar to other schools, the online doctoral degree in Education assumes a working experience and knowledge of the field. An ideal applicant already has a master’s degree of some type in organizational strategy, preferably education but an MBA or a master’s of science are viable. In addition, work at other schools can be transferred in, up to 18 credit hours. The program itself is entirely online with the use of virtual training and collaboration tools. Students are geared towards being on the frontline of pushing radical shifts in education with the newest and latest research. The entire doctorate path and program for the American College of Education is reviewed regularly and accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
University of West Georgia
Also in Georgia and situated in Carrolton since 1906, the University of West Georgia currently offers a doctorate in Education with three different flavors under the same degree:
Professional Counselling and Supervision
The cost for attendance is approximately $312/credit, not including administrative fees per semester. Designed with a standard 60 credit program length for an accepted student, the West Georgia doctorate program allows a student 11 semester periods to complete the degree path, which includes 15 credits associated with successful completion of a dissertation. An adjustment is made reducing the program length to 39 credits for those who already have an Ed.S degree prior to entry. The ideal student will graduate with robust training in executive education leadership skills or be prepared to take on a higher education leadership position as part of the senior faculty. In general, the University of West Georgia is regularly reviewed and accredited like many institutions in the south by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC).
University of Nevada
Established in 1864 and located in Reno, Nevada, the University of Nevada prides itself at an affordable $269/credit that beats out many schools offering bachelor’s degrees for three or four times as much. As an online college and educator as well, the University of Nevada offers the online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) as well as the Doctor in Judicial Studies. The nursing path is not the most high-demand degree, often being available for just a select group of advanced nursing professionals, like those already with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), who are seeking training for higher management or teaching positions themselves in nursing and healthcare. Rooted in evidence-based practice theory, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) at the university allows two paths for candidates: either a master’s degree succession or a bachelor’s degree going direct to a doctorate level. Within the program, doctoral students get to choose from either the management-oriented Executive Nurse path or the Advanced Practice Nurse. If, however, a student comes via the bachelor’s degree in nursing path, then the student can choose from three different practice paths. Students have to attend at least two days for orientation and one day for defending a dissertation.
The Judicial Studies degree is a restricted program in which only sitting judges can attend. The student must already have a master’s degree (usually a law degree by default) and three letters of recommendation.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Right in the middle of the education doctorate (Ed.D.) market, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln provides on-campus classes in Lincoln, Nebraska, but offers an online Ph.D. program in Education with a cost of $326/credit. The school has been in operation since 1869, and the current doctorate program provides three different degrees to choose from:
Doctor of Education in Educational Administration
Doctor of Education in Educational Studies
Doctor of Philosophy in Education Studies
While Nebraska-Lincoln does service the general market for students seeking credentials to move to executive positions and leadership, the school’s doctorate program also focuses on education research with the Doctor of Philosophy in Education Studies. Designed more for the true academic, this doctorate degree level path can specialize in three additional areas from special education to teacher training to institutional administration.
Even though the majority of the Nebraska-Lincoln doctorate path is online and can be taken anywhere with an Internet connection, each attending student has to participate in at least six hours of research meetings and seminars. The overall program will take 90 credit hours to complete, even though much of the content assumes a working knowledge of the education field in students. For accreditation, the university regularly reviewed and rated by the Higher Learning Commission.
The University of the Cumberlands
Being one of the most diverse in doctoral online programs, the University of the Cumberlands offers online courses for graduate degrees that cover business, education, and psychology. No surprise, the program gets a lot of attention from different industries versus just the typical education market. The University of the Cumberlands offers five different programs online :
Doctor in Leadership (Business and Education),
Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Counselor Education & Supervision
Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership
Doctor in Clinical Psychology (hybrid attendance)
Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (hybrid attendance)
Unlike many of the competitors, the University of the Cumberlands is a private institution. The cost currently runs approximately $375/credit for a doctoral program student. However, the psychology doctoral degree is a higher price point at $550/credit. The leadership path primarily trains a student to perform an executive role in education but it could be applied in business environments as well. The psychology doctoral program is a bit longer than the others (73 credit hours versus 60), and it operates in a hybrid format. Students attend a weekend session in person and then perform other hours online. A clinical training requirement also necessitates in-person attendance as well, which will offer online students an advanced, personal look into mental health training. Overall, the university is accredited and validated regularly by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
Delta State University
Specific to the medical field, a student can obtain an online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) via Delta State University. The school was originally established in 1924, and today it provides multiple nursing programs for a variety of student levels. For the online graduate, the doctoral program can be entered by either a bachelor’s degree in nursing or with a master’s degree in the same field. Both are sizable programs with hefty expectations for aspiring healthcare professionals. The bachelor’s path will require 114 credit hours to complete (about 9 semesters). The master’s degree or traditional path will take 31 to 83 credit hours to finish, depending on which doctoral path the student chooses. The fastest is the Family Nurse Practitioner Doctor in Nursing. The longest is the Non-Family Nurse Practitioner path. Every program also expects at least 420 hours of clinical work, but the Non-Family Nurse Practitioner degree requires 1,020 hours in the clinic. Despite being medically-oriented, Delta State University’s doctorate programs fall under the school’s general accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
Columbia Southern University
Columbia Southern University offers a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) degree online which will provide an in-depth application of theory and research to students pursuing online learning. The graduate program will also help students sharpen their decision-making and leadership skills in a business setting as well as discover and use methods to solve industry problems. The doctorate degree requires 61 total credit hours, 9 of which may be accepted as transfer credits. A dissertation and defense are required of doctoral students, but this can be done from a distance using audio/visual technology.
Two online learning options are available to students, which are helpful for those wanting to study part-time. CSU’s Lifepace Learning option doesn’t have start/end dates and allows students to complete courses at their own pace, which is anywhere from 4- to 18-weeks. The Term Enrollment option lets students complete assignments at their own pace but does have a course start and end date that can keep students on track. The Term Enrollment option is also open to federal financial aid for qualifying students. Students who take one class every term (usually 9 weeks) can expect to graduate in about three years.
CSU is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC).