Innovation 10 Minute Read

How to Offer Affordable Education Opportunities (Without Going Broke)

Computer and books

As the cost of higher education steadily increases, it’s become more apparent that many students are looking for schools that offer affordable education opportunities. Institutions that offer online degrees are now in a position to capitalize on this demand and offer prospective students financial incentives that show why their degree programs make more fiscal sense.

There’s no doubt that cost is likely to be the most important factor that a prospective student will consider when choosing which college or university to attend. After all, whether a student can even afford to enroll in an institution of higher education––or how much debt he or she will accrue––matters. Consider the data from the sixth annual Online College Students report (The Learning House, Inc., & Aslanian Market Research, 2017):

  • 61% of students surveyed indicated that tuition and fees were the primary factor in their enrollment decision.
  • 42% of those surveyed expressed that a $500 scholarship would sway their decision regarding school choice.
  • 17% of current and past online students wished they had learned more about their institution’s tuition and fees.
  • 16% of these students wished they had learned more about their financial aid package.

Statistics like these show that cost is something that clearly matters to prospective online students. To position themselves advantageously within this competitive educational environment, institutions should consider the following options as ways to offer potential students affordable learning solutions.

Make Transfer Credit Policies More Forgiving.

Students often elect to attend a community college for general education courses because the cost per credit hour is lower when compared to the expense of classes at a 4-year university. To encourage students to enroll in their online degree programs, these more expensive 4-year schools should consider creating a policy that offers more flexibility regarding the acceptance of transfer credits from community colleges or other accredited schools.

Alternatively, a 4-year college offering traditional and online classes might consider developing reciprocal relationships with local (or nonlocal) community colleges that will allow students to transfer earned educational credit hours without difficulty. This type of economic incentive reduces cost-conscious students’ financial burden and also makes a school willing to easily accept prospective students’ transfer credits more appealing.

Offer the Option of a 3-Year Bachelor’s Degree.

Marketing research suggests that prospective students are interested in two main, related factors when selecting an institution: cost and time to completion (Clinefelter & Aslanian, 2017). For the most part, tuition and fees determine what school a student chooses, but it should be noted that “students are willing to pay more for perceived quality or a program that meets their needs” (Clinefelter & Aslanian, 2017, p. 6). “Speed to degree” is also important; when choosing an online program, prospective students consider “programmatic features” such as the availability of “year-round courses (33%), faster completion compared to [the traditional] classroom (29%), accelerated courses (23%), and frequent start dates (20%)” (Clinefelter & Aslanian, 2017, p. 10).

Institutions that consider these two factors when designing degree programs can gain an advantage over educational competitors. By offering students ways to earn a degree in a faster time frame, they address the needs of many online students who are not only cost-conscious but also face an array of responsibilities (jobs, family, etc.) that compel them to complete their education as quickly as possible.

Accordingly, institutions should consider restructuring bachelor’s degree programs so that students can complete degrees in only 3 years as opposed to the traditional 4. Putting this type of program into practice would admittedly require schools to adjust their curriculum and their accreditors to reconsider their requirements (Marshall & Weinstein, 2015). Four-year schools can reduce time and degree requirements in several ways to accommodate this suggested change and ultimately improve students’ educational experience, such as editing a degree’s core curriculum to cull extraneous courses, reducing the number of required electives, or implementing shorter semesters or terms (Marshall & Weinstein, 2015).

More importantly, reducing the length of a degree program by a year would reduce the cost of tuition and fees by up to 25%, thereby reducing the amount that students would have to borrow (Marshall & Weinstein, 2015). A 3-year program could also allow schools to reduce attrition (or noncompletion) rates without diminishing the students’ ability to compete in the job market upon graduation (Marshall & Weinstein, 2015).

Reduce the Cost of Instructional Materials.

Textbooks can be expensive, costing students on average up to $1,200 a year (Farrington, 2018). Institutions should consider reducing this expense by offering students the option to rent textbooks through the institution at a better rate than those found through prominent online vendors (such as Amazon, Campus Book Rentals, or Chegg).

As another option, it may be possible for schools to determine if they can develop degree programs using only free or nearly free materials, thereby reducing a “hidden cost” of higher education. Options include the use of open educational resources (OERs) and even partnerships with libraries, museums, and other similar organizations. This type of accommodation eliminates the need for students to purchase textbooks, the cost of which has risen over 800% since 1978, far outpacing inflation (Gearhiser, 2016).

The adoption of OERs in particular offers several more advantages: In addition to reducing educational costs for students, their use can enhance universal accessibility, promote lifelong learning, and protect institutions of higher education from copyright concerns (Ackerly, 2017). Implementing a textbook-free approach also provides schools with an opportunity to develop unique, customized learning resources; eliminate reliance on publisher-created materials and assessments; offer students a more personalized educational experience; promote a learning environment that challenges students by supporting independent exploration and research; and build students’ skills through self-directed learning (Gearhiser, 2016).

An institution that adopts a partial or complete OER-based curriculum by offering textbook-free courses differentiates itself from competitors by openly reducing or eliminating the cost of instructional materials, a practice that will appeal to prospective online students looking for an educational option that makes financial sense.

Allow Students to Earn Credits for What They Already Know.

Institutions should consider developing a formal process that allows students to receive college credit for courses if they can demonstrate that they have met the learning objectives through nontraditional means, including career experience. This type of flexible approach aligns with competency-based (or personalized) learning and improves student outcomes while saving them time and money (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.).

Institutions could also help students save money by accepting CLEP credits earned through the College Level Examination Program, a credit-by-exam program administered by the College Board. As of July 1, 2018, a CLEP exam will allow students to earn three or more college credits and costs only $87, which is a significant savings compared to traditional tuition. Statistics show that students who use this academic resource are more likely to complete their degrees, have higher cumulative GPAs than non-CLEP students, finish their degrees in less time, and experience significant cost savings (The College Board, n.d.). Offering this type of affordable learning solution to prospective online students is another way for schools to position themselves strongly within the educational arena.

Offer a 4-Year Graduation Guarantee (or a Guarantee for Graduation Within an Appropriate Time Frame).

Because many college students now take more than 5 years to graduate, schools can attract prospective online students by (1) guaranteeing degree completion in 4 years or less (depending on curriculum availability) and (2) offering to waive the additional costs––including tuition and fees––incurred by enrolled students who met academic requirements but failed to graduate within the specified time frame (Clark, 2013). This type of solution typically requires both the school and the student to meet contractual obligations. For students, this could include satisfying requirements such as declaring their major early, attending full time, maintaining a certain GPA, and meeting regularly with their academic advisor.

If a school decides to offer this type of guarantee, it should formally assure students that if they follow their graduation plan and meet all conditions, they’ll complete their program in the allotted time or finish it without additional expense. Most importantly, the school should follow through with its end of the bargain, making sure to eliminate obstacles to graduation (e.g., not offering required courses) and cover additional costs for eligible students. Schools that can offer prospective students this financial assurance will have an edge over other educational competitors who do not offer this type of guarantee.

Another related option would be to offer incentives to enrolled students. For example, Ball State University pays a $500 “Completion Scholarship” (essentially a bonus) to students who graduate within 4 years, and Indiana University freezes tuition for upperclassmen on target to finish in 4 years (Todd, 2011; Clark, 2013).

Offer Opportunities for Reduced Tuition.

Schools that wish to attract prospective students may consider offering students who meet specific requirements reduced tuition or a tuition waiver. For example, students who maintain a certain GPA, enroll in summer courses, have a certain income level, or qualify for a hardship could become eligible for a reduced tuition option (Powell, 2017). It’s also not uncommon for schools to offer tuition waivers or tuition remission to students who work as employees of the institution or who are the children or spouse of a faculty or staff member. This type of financial aid is an employee benefit.

As a recruitment tool, institutions of higher education may also consider offering reduced tuition to current or former members of the military, law enforcement, and firefighters, as well as their children and spouses, particularly if the service member or first responder became disabled or died in the line of duty (Edvisors, n.d.). Other beneficiaries could include state employees, unemployed individuals (on a space-available basis), foster children and adopted children, and senior citizens (Edvisors, n.d.).


Colleges and universities can offer affordable learning solutions to prospective online students concerned with both the cost of education and the price of time. To interest potential students, institutions of higher education should consider the following strategic options: making transfer credit policies more forgiving, offering accelerated degree programs, reducing the cost of instructional materials, allowing students to earn credits for what they already know, offering a 4-year graduation guarantee, or offering opportunities for reduced tuition. Implementation of any or all of these solutions will not only encourage students to enroll but also help schools gain an advantage over educational competitors.


Ackerly, N. (2017, January 26). Open educational resources and their use in higher education. Retrieved from

Clark, K. (2013, March 5). Colleges offer four-year graduation guarantees. Retrieved from

Clinefelter, D. L., & Aslanian, C. B. (2017). Online college students 2017: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc. Retrieved from

The College Board. (n.d.). CLEP benefits. Retrieved from

Edvisors. (n.d.). Tuition waivers. Retrieved from

Farrington, R. (2018, January 3). Comparing the best college rental textbook sites for 2018. Retrieved from

Gearhiser, L. (2016, July 14). Textbook-free courses. Retrieved from

The Learning House, Inc., & Aslanian Market Research. (2017, June 24). Online college students 2017: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Retrieved from

Marshall, W., & Weinstein, P., Jr. (2015, August 26). Why we need the 3-year college degree. Retrieved from

Powell, F. (2017, August 21). 10 ways to get a tuition discount. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved from

Todd, J. (2011, November 29). Ball State announces unprecedented tuition savings of nearly $6,000, including Completion Scholarship. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Competency-based learning or personalized learning. Retrieved from

Posted June 29, 2018
Author Robin Zahrndt and Katherine Gentzel
Categories Innovation