Online doctoral degrees allow you to complete this same advanced degree conveniently in an online format over the Internet. Partly because of this flexibility, doctoral degrees are among the most rapid growing sectors of online programs being offered today.
Once you complete a doctoral degree online, you’ll have the widest selection of job opportunities in the academic world, either as a professor or faculty researcher, or as a professional in another field.
Selecting the right online or traditional doctoral program is critical to your career success. This is true whether your program focuses on education, psychology, healthcare, or something in between.
As such, one of your highest priorities is finding an online doctoral program that best suits your educational and professional needs. The program should also maximize the efficiency of your time and monetary investments.
That’s where affordable online doctoral programs come in.
There are some excellent inexpensive PhD degrees available online. Unfortunately, there are also some education programs that aren’t worth the price of tuition.
In this guide, we offer critical advice for how to find the best online doctoral programs for your money.
What is an Online Doctoral Degree?
A doctoral degree, also known as a doctorate, is the highest professional degree. It’s often called a “terminal” degree, because there are no degrees at a higher level. Getting a doctorate demonstrates that you’re an expert in your field of study or your profession.
There are two primary types of doctorates: research-oriented and professional.
Research-Oriented Doctoral Programs
The most common type of research doctorate is a Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy. But there are many other types of research concentrations, including:
- D.A., or Doctor of Arts
- Ed.D., or Doctor of Education
- DPH, or Doctor of Public Health
- Th.D., or Doctor of Theology
These doctorates focus on two things: gaining critical, high-level knowledge in your specialty area and conducting thorough research.
Many doctorates require learners to complete a dissertation to fulfill the research requirement of the degree. A dissertation is a very in-depth research project that takes years to complete. Not only must you conduct thorough research, but you must also write a dissertation that summarizes your research, analyzes data, and draws conclusions.
Doctoral students must then defend their dissertation. This is usually done in the final semester of the doctoral program. In a traditional on-campus program, the dissertation defense is done in person before a committee. Each member of the committee might ask questions or even challenge the doctoral student regarding their methods or findings.
Cheap online doctoral programs might do things a little differently, though. For example, rather than being required to travel to campus to defend your dissertation, you might do so over Zoom or a similar program.
Likewise, not all online doctoral programs require a dissertation. Instead, you might complete a capstone project. There might not be a dissertation or capstone project at all! These types of doctorates are most likely to be completely online without any required campus visits.
If you want a career in research or education, or if you want to be a subject-matter expert, a research-oriented doctorate is the way to go.
Professional Doctoral Programs
A professional doctorate focuses less on research and more on the practical application of knowledge in a field of work.
For example, a Ph.D. program in psychology might focus on psychological research, such as examining the cause of increased instances of autism spectrum disorders in recent years. A professional psychology doctorate – a Psy.D. – might focus more on the therapeutic interventions you might use when working with a client with autism.
This is just one example, too. There are many different professional doctoral degrees, including:
- JD, or Juris Doctor
- DSW, or Doctor of Social Work
- DBA, or Doctor of Business Administration
- Pharm.D., or Doctor of Pharmacy
- DNP, or Doctor of Nursing Practice
In each case, a professional doctorate degree prepares you for working in your chosen field by helping you develop tangible skills for solving real-world problems. A law student learns how to argue a case in court. A social work student learns how to treat clients suffering from emotional trauma. A pharmacy student learns how to properly dispense prescriptions to patients.
As you can see, these degrees result in immediately-applicable skills in the workplace. For this reason, professional doctorates are more appropriate if you want to get a new job, switch careers, or develop expertise in your field of work.
This isn’t to say that you don’t acquire valuable skills in a research-oriented doctoral program. Quite the contrary. However, your studies in a research doctorate degree are more theoretical and academic in nature.
Progression of an Online Doctoral Program
Online doctoral programs (and on-campus ones, for that matter) begin with a couple of years of intense studies in a classroom environment. The courses you take will be highly advanced, yet have the look and feel of courses you completed in your undergraduate and graduate studies.
For example, as a psychology doctorate student, you might have online class time where you “meet” with your classmates and professor to discuss course materials, like journal readings. This is an opportunity to share what you’ve learned, take in what others in your class have gleaned from the reading, and get deeper insights from. your professor.
These traditional classroom experiences are highly collaborative. You might not do a lot of formal group work, but you’ll still have the opportunity to support your classmates and be supported by them in your pursuit of greater knowledge.
This type of learning eventually gives way to research-focused studies. This is where your dissertation research begins. It’s also where a much higher level of individual study begins. You might find that after two or three years of collaborative coursework, you’ll have another two or three years of intense, independent work on your dissertation.
See also: Top Accredited Online PhD Programs
How Long are Online Doctoral Programs?
The answer to this question is that it just depends. Generally speaking, degrees in science fields take the longest. Those in the arts and humanities fields may only take four or five years.
Like traditional on-campus doctorates, the timeframe to complete an online doctorate varies based on a number of factors:
- The school you attend
- The specific program you’re completing
- How many credits you’ve earned in the past
- Whether you study full-time or part-time
For example, one school might offer an online Ph.D. in history that takes five years to complete. Yet, another might have a Ph.D. in history that takes seven years.
As another example, some doctorates require much less time. A JD is a good example of this. Typical JD programs take three to four years to finish. Some doctorates in education take even less time – just 18 months to two years in some cases.
There might also be a difference in program length depending on how it’s delivered. While an on-campus Ed.D. program might take three years, an accelerated online Ed.D. program might take just a year-and-a-half.
Your ability to study full or part-time also influences how long it takes to get an online doctorate. Obviously, if you work on your doctorate on a full-time, year-round basis, you’ll finish much faster than a student that studies only part-time.
Is an Online Doctorate Easier to Get Than a Traditional Doctorate?
Many prospective online learners wonder if an online doctoral program is easier than a traditional one. There are certainly some features that might make it an easier task to complete your degree online.
As noted earlier, some online doctoral programs don’t require any campus visits, nor do they require a dissertation. If you don’t have to spend time traveling to and from campus, your online doctorate will be easier to complete.
Likewise, without a dissertation component, you’ll have far less research and writing to complete over the course of your program. Since dissertations can take years to finish, the lack of a dissertation makes some doctoral programs much, much easier.
There is a flexibility component to distance education, too. Many online doctoral programs don’t have set class times. The ability to work on coursework when it’s convenient for you makes many online doctorates an easier option than on-campus doctoral programs.
That said, it’s important to note that colleges and universities have gone to great lengths to ensure online programs are of equal weight and value as on-campus programs. In other words, a cheap online doctoral degree will require as much time and effort as a cheap traditional doctoral degree.
You will likely find that online doctoral level courses are taught by the same faculty as on-campus courses. The research component to your degree will likely be just as rigorous, too, despite the distance learning arrangement. Sure, there are some things that can make online learning easier, but getting a doctorate is still a time-consuming process that requires a lot of commitment and hard work!
See also: Top Easy Accredited Online PhD Programs
Are Online Doctorates Cheaper Than On-Campus Programs?
In some cases, you might find that enrollment an online doctorate is less expensive than an on-campus doctorate. A good example of this is the tuition rate that you’re charged.
When you enroll on campus, you will pay in-state or out-of-state tuition. The difference between these rates can be staggering, with out-of-state tuition often double that of in-state tuition (or even higher). But, some colleges and universities charge the same tuition and fees for in-state and out-of-state students. Rather than paying $1,800 per credit as an out-of-state student, you might pay $1,000 per credit no matter where you live.
Another component of the “cheapness” of an online doctorate is that you can work on your degree from home. You don’t have to live on campus and pay for student housing. There’s no monetary output for gas or parking or wear and tear on your vehicle. And since many online programs have a more flexible schedule, you might be able to work on your degree without quitting your job or reducing your hours.
The price of an online doctorate depends on other factors, too.
As we discussed earlier, some doctorates take as little as 18 months to complete. This type of doctorate would be the cheapest available. But, others take five or more years to complete. The more time you spend in a program, the more expensive it will be!
Another factor to consider is the online school you attend. More prestigious schools – like an Ivy League university – will cost more than a state school. Additionally, schools that are accredited tend to charge higher rates than schools that lack accreditation.
Doctorates from public schools tend to be cheaper as well. For example, the average cost of a doctorate from a public university is $92,200. The average cost of a doctorate from a private university stands at $127,100.
How to Pay for a Cheap Online Doctorate
Even cheap online doctorates still require a significant output of money. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of a doctorate in 2021 was $114,300. That’s a lot of money.
While some graduate students have college funds to help offset these costs, others don’t have that luxury. Fortunately, there are many different resources you can turn to for funding your advanced studies.
Many doctoral students pursue institutional grants to pay for their degree. These grants don’t have to be paid back like loans, making them a highly attractive option for paying for your cheap online doctorate degree.
A research assistantship is one type of institutional grant.
Essentially, a research assistantship provides you with reduced tuition and perhaps even a monthly stipend in exchange for helping conduct research at your school. In other cases, you might get an assistantship for teaching. These awards are provided in exchange for teaching lower-level courses, like an undergraduate class.
Unfortunately, these assistantships typically require your presence on campus, so they are far more common for students in a traditional doctoral program. However, some online programs offer assistantships that can be completed remotely.
It’s worth noting that there are non-institutional grants available to some doctoral students. Many states have grant programs for doctorate studies. There are federal research grants for doctoral students as well.
Scholarships are another avenue you can pursue for reducing the cost of your online doctorate. In fact, scholarships are available in many different forms. You might get a scholarship based on:
- Academic performance
- Financial need
- Special circumstance, like being a veteran
- Your field of study
- Your particular area of research
Depending on the specialization you’re studying and your current employment situation, you might find that your employer will offer funding for part of your doctoral program. This is very common in businesses and industries in which post-graduate programs are valued.
For example, if you’re a mechanical engineer with a master’s degree, your employer might offer tuition assistance for you to pursue a doctorate in your field. As another example, many public and private school districts offer tuition assistance for teachers and administrators to get a doctorate.
While these funding sources are available, they still aren’t as common as taking out student loans. Roughly two-thirds of financial assistance for doctoral studies comes in the form of student loans. Since loans have to be paid back, and since doctoral programs can be very expensive, loans should be your last resort.
See also: Top Accredited Online Colleges
What Fields of Study Have Cheap Online Doctorates?
Fortunately, you can find cheap online doctorates in many different fields. Usually, the cheapest degrees will be found in fields of study that are extremely popular, like education. But why?
The more colleges and universities that offer an online doctoral program, the more likely it is for increased competition for students. Since online students have more choice for certain doctorates, schools might use lower tuition and fees to attract more enrollees.
Other than education, some of the most popular online doctorate degrees are in the fields of:
- Psychology and other mental health fields
- Criminal justice
- Physical therapy
- Organizational leadership
- Higher education administration and higher education leadership
- Health sciences
- Special education
This isn’t a complete list, but it gives you an idea of the variety of studies you can pursue in an online doctorate program.
The Importance of Accreditation
When selecting a cheap online doctorate program, it’s important to consider more than just the price. One of the most important factors to consider is the accreditation of the school and the program.
Accreditation occurs at many different levels. For example, there are two types of institutional accreditation: regional and national. Regional accreditation is the more common of the two. It’s also considered the more prestigious of the two.
Regional agencies are responsible for accrediting universities in their area. These agencies are endorsed by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), but are independent agencies. Since they’re third parties, there’s more credence to their accreditation decisions. They are impartial bodies whose evaluations are based on many different sources of information, including a school’s:
- Student support services
- Faculty qualifications
- Curriculum and instruction
Not only do regional accrediting bodies look at these factors, but they also make announced and unannounced visits to schools. Getting “boots on the ground” allows accreditors to see in real-time what a school is doing to ensure their students get the best possible education.
The other type of institutional accreditation is national accreditation. Where regional accreditation is often reserved for public and private non-profit colleges and universities, national accreditation is usually reserved for trade and career schools, for-profit institutions, and online-only universities.
National accreditation is easier for a school to get – the accreditation standards are not as robust as for regional accreditation. For that reason, national accreditation is viewed as a lesser option. As a result, regionally-accredited schools usually don’t accept credits from nationally-accredited schools.
When getting a cheap online degree, the issue of accreditation is very important. On one hand, if your graduate studies were done at a nationally-accredited school, but you want to get your doctorate at a regionally-accredited school, some of your graduate studies might not be recognized. That’s because regionally-accredited schools seldom take transfer credits from nationally-accredited schools. Needless to say, this can set you back a significant amount of time and money.
There is also programmatic accreditation. This type of accreditation is given at the program level. So, if you’re getting a doctorate in social work, the program might be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
The ideal situation would be if you attend a regionally-accredited school and pursued a doctorate that also has programmatic accreditation. This ensures that your degree and program of study have the highest assurances of quality and communicates to potential employers that your degree is respected.
Do Employers Accept Online Doctorates as Valid?
A generation ago, an online doctorate would not have held as much weight as a doctorate earned on campus. But, times have changed!
Universities have poured millions of dollars into building robust online learning platforms where students like you can pursue a doctorate in anything from occupational therapy to educational leadership to computer science. All that money and effort has resulted in a major shift in how online education is viewed.
When you complete an online doctorate, your diploma won’t signify that your degree was earned online. It will look the same as a degree earned on campus. It will have the same value and weight. In most cases, employers won’t even ask if you studied in person or online – by and large, how you got the degree doesn’t matter.
What matters is what you know, what you can do, and how well you can apply what you’ve learned. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding!
Cheap Online Doctorate Degree Options
There are many different schools that offer excellent online doctorate programs at rates that are lower than average. The trick is to find a program that fits your needs, that fits in your budget, and is accredited.
Below is a short list that illustrates some of the possibilities you can explore in a cheap online doctoral degree program.
Mississippi State University Online
Mississippi State has nearly a dozen online doctoral programs available. This includes options in the fields of computer science, education, and engineering. The school is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The tuition rate for online graduate studies is $514.00 per credit hour.
University of North Dakota Online
The University of North Dakota offers about a dozen online doctoral programs. You can choose from degrees ranging from biomedical engineering to public health to communication. North Dakota is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Tuition is charged at a rate of $545.16 per credit.
Old Dominion University
Located in Virginia, Old Dominion University offers 12 different online doctoral concentrations. Areas of study include public administration, community college leadership, and English, to name a few. Old Dominion is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Doctorate tuition is $595.00 per credit hour.
University of Tennessee – Knoxville
The University of Tennessee at Knoxville has five online doctoral programs. You can choose among social work, engineering, nursing education, and higher education. The school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Tuition costs $714.00 per credit.
University of Arizona Global Campus
There are four online doctoral concentrations offers by the University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC). UAGC doctoral programs range from education to human services to psychology. UAGC is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission. Tuition for doctorate studies is $1,082.00 per credit.
As you can see from this short list, online doctorate programs are available at schools of all types, in all locations around the country, and with different regional accreditations. Secular schools, public schools, and Christian schools like Liberty University all offer online doctorate degrees at affordable prices.
The Difference Between Online Doctoral Degrees and Traditional Degrees
An online doctoral program is only different from its traditional counterpart for about the first two years, since this is when the majority of the course studies are completed.
Of course, this is traditionally completed in the classroom, but in online programs it is conducted through the Internet from anywhere in the world. Therefore, as noted earlier, you have the ability to complete the assignments at your own pace and on your own time with an asynchronous learning format. Online classes still follow a syllabus that designates when assignments are due and when exams need to be taken.
During the second part of the online doctoral program, it does not differ much from the traditional program because you still work independently on a dissertation.
Professors usually are available to consult with you one-on-one via email, phone, video, or live chat. If it is an extension of an on-campus program or you live close to campus, there may also be established office hours where professors will meet with you in person.
Students also engage with other students in the class, through interactive message boards, Zoom classes, discussions, and virtual classroom chat rooms. Most students decide to work full-time while going to school part-time because online courses provide the convenience of completing the work at any hour of the day.
However, it is important to note once again that online doctoral degree programs are just as rigorous as conventional programs. The only major difference is that you are gifted with the flexibility of carrying on other commitments and completing the courses on your own time.
As when choosing any degree program, it is tremendously important for doctoral students to make sure the program has existed for at least three years. Doing so increases the likelihood that the instructors are experienced and knowledgeable about the online learning format. Beyond this, you need to find a program that fits your schedule, provides resources that suit your individual goals, and offers the refined skills necessary to advance to employment as a highly-qualified professional.
Distance education and online learning has become more widely accepted in recent years due to the increasing demand by students for alternatives to the time and financial investments required to complete traditional degrees. Earning a degree online can open up lots of different doors, including career advancement opportunities, employment in a new career, and so much more. Knowing exactly what an online doctoral degree is and in which ways it is different from a traditional degree can help you as you select the best school to meet your personal, financial, educational, and professional needs.
See also: What is Online College Accreditation?