Choosing an affordable online education doesn't mean sacrificing quality. Here are the cheapest online colleges that have been proven to deliver results.

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With the exception of perhaps community colleges, pursuing higher education in this country is typically an expensive proposition.

Education.org reports that the average cost of college in the United States is a staggering $35,720 per student per year, a price that has tripled over the past 20 years. The same organization says the annual growth rate of tuition fees is about 6.8 percent.

For those looking to pare back that cost, online education may present a more budget friendly alternative. For instance, according to the Center for Online Education the average cost of online college in 2020 was between $9,600 and $15,150 per year. While those prices are hardly a bargain, they're far less than the brick-and-mortar alternative. And those are just the averages, in many cases, it's possible to find online programs for far less than $9,600 a year.

But how do you balance budget with quality when assessing online colleges? The good news is that OnlineU has already done the work for you. The platform, which has been around since 2014, releases an annual ranking of the 10 Best Affordable Online Colleges. It's important to understand, however, that earning a slot on the list is not just based on bargain-basement tuition fees. 

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OnlineU calls the list the best affordable for a reason. In order to make the top 10, schools must also have a solid showing when it comes to the salaries of their alumni. Each year, OnlineU provides a salary score ranking, a unique measurement developed by its sister site Grad Reports, which is based on average alumni earnings one year after graduation. What's particularly interesting is that the platform's salary score rankings are based on measuring the salaries of alumni from both online schools and brick-and-mortar schools.

Take a look at the top five.

Excelsior College

The top ranked school on OnlineU's list, Excelsior College, which has a salary score of 97 out of 100, beats out such prestigious brick-and-mortar institutions as Princeton (salary score of 95) and Columbia (salary score of 94), when it comes to the salaries of alumni one year after graduation. And the tuition at Excelsior? $15,300 per year. (In case you're wondering, the annual tuition at Princeton for the 2019-2020 school year was a staggering, jaw dropping, faint inducing $73,450. That price tag included $51,87 for tuition, another $10,090 for rooming, $7060 for boarding, and $3,500 in miscellaneous expenses.) 

For those not eager to pony up nearly $300,000 for four years of college, or don't have a trust fund at the ready, here are some of the other best and most affordable online colleges, according to OnlineU's ranking system.

Thomas Edison State University

Coming in second place in OnlineU's ranking, tuition at Thomas Edison is about $9,278 per year. The school's salary score meanwhile is 94, meaning their graduates, on average, are earning as much as those from Columbia University.

One of the top-performing majors at Thomas Edison State University is sociology, says OnlineU. The program is focused on factors that influence human behavior, attitudes, and beliefs. Also notable, the school's nursing program graduates fare quite well, says OnlineU. The flat-rate tuition for full-time undergraduate students here is $4,639 per semester.

Northeastern University Global Network

Annual tuition at Northeastern University online costs about $16,230, which is hardly cheap. But the school earned a salary score of 93, which may make the price-tag worth it. Better yet, the leadership, project management, and digital communication programs here all earned stellar salary scores of 100.

American Public University System

The American Public University System offers 193 different degree choices. And its price is among the more affordable at $8,550 per year. The school's salary score meanwhile is 90.

Colorado State University Global

Rounding out the top five on OnlineU's Best Affordable list, Colorado State University Global will cost you about $10,500 per year. The school, which offers 28 online degrees, earned a salary score of 89.

How To Choose An Affordable Online College

When you're researching online college options, the first thing you'll want to look for is accreditation, says Nicole Hopler, senior marketing manager for OnlineU. All of the schools included among the OnlineU ranking are accredited.

"Accreditation is one of the most important things to keep in mind," Hopler tells Parents. "Make sure the school has either regional or national accreditation. Regional accreditation can sometimes be more stringent."

You may also want to look for schools that are online-only, as opposed to juggling both online and in-person education. "The online specific universities are great because often they have been online for a while," continues Hopler, explaining that these schools generally know what they're doing when it comes to delivering online education successfully and effectively, as opposed to a school that may have joined the remote learning business more recently.

If you're considering the online version of a prestigious brick-and-mortar school, it's also a good idea to research whether the professors teaching classes remotely are the same as those teaching in person. "They might not use the same professors online as they do in person," explains Hopler. This could be a factor in your decision if you're seeking out a specific school because of the stellar reputation of its academic staff.

While on this topic, Hopler also points out that some prestigious schools completely farm out management of their online programs to a platform named EDX, meaning you may not be getting the same quality of education at all.

"If you're expecting the same prestige as a certain school that you're looking at, it's important to know that the online program is not going to be run through that prestigious school," says Hopler.

Finally, just because you may be pursuing a college degree online doesn't mean you can't still qualify for student financial aid. Most online programs accept FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) so you can go through the same process as you would when applying for traditional, in-person education.