The Impact of Sliding Scale Tuition on Access to Online Education

sliding scale tuition online education

Definition of Sliding Scale Tuition

Sliding scale tuition means that a student will pay tuition and fees based on their individual and household income. Ultimately, this structure aligns the student’s tuition with their income to ensure they’ll pay only what they can afford. It aims to give low-income students access to higher learning.

Each college will have its own way of granting reduced tuition. Some online colleges have thresholds, for example:

  • Families earning less than $60,000 pay no tuition.
  • Families earning $60,000 to $120,000 pay half tuition.
  • Families earning $120,000 to $200,000 pay 80% of tuition.
  • Families earning over $200,000 pay full tuition.

Some schools, on the other hand, use a more holistic approach to their sliding scale tuition model. This means they evaluate students’ needs beyond the individual and household income. They could include any or all of the following:

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  • Household size
  • Typical assets
  • Debts and loans
  • Dependents

These factors will allow the institution to determine the appropriate tuition rate for each student.

Regardless of how an online school assesses students for sliding scale tuition payments, several common requirements typically apply:

  • Tax transcripts or tax returns
  • Details and documentation of financial obligations
  • Documents for any aid provided by the government

Unlike flat-rate tuition models, where students pay a fixed amount of tuition throughout their enrollment, sliding scale tuition models operate differently. In sliding scale tuition, students’ tuition fees are not fixed; instead, they are periodically reassessed based on the student’s current financial situation.

Another thing you need to know is that these schools need to enroll a certain number of students from each category to make their number. This means that not all low-income applicants can avail themselves of the sliding-scale tuition program. The main reasons are practicality in budgeting and financial planning.

Schools need to balance their income to keep all ends running. The balance between students paying full price and those in reduced tuition will help the college stay afloat.

Ultimately, the sliding scale tuition model has five main goals:

  1. To make way for affordable online education.
  2. To encourage more students from different financial circumstances to pursue higher education.
  3. To promote diversity in college environments.
  4. To offer flexibility and sustainability in paying for college.
  5. To produce more educated and trained professionals.

Increased Accessibility

Online college tuition tends to be cheaper than on-campus colleges. According to the Education Data Initiative:

Private four-year$60,593$185,252
Public four-year$54,183$85,348

While online degrees are, on average, $30,000 cheaper than on-campus programs, not all students can afford them. The monetary investment it takes to complete a degree can still significantly burden students, especially those from low-income households.

However, because of the flexible tuition rates offered by sliding scale tuition models, many low-income students can attend college for free. This approach to “pay what you can” tuition aims to improve on-campus and online education access by allowing impoverished students to pay an amount they can afford.

When low-income students can pay based on what they can afford, they feel more confident about pursuing higher education. This gives them hope for creating a new and improved life for themselves and their families.

One of the most frequently asked questions is, “Are sliding scale tuition programs found only in affordable online colleges?” The answer is no. In fact, many prestigious colleges offer reduced tuition to low-income students.

Texas A&M University

The Aggie Assurance program provides scholarships and grants to low-income students and pays for tuition, fees, books, and other school costs.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Carolina Covenant at UNC ensures low-income students graduate without debt. To qualify, students must

  • be full-time undergraduates,
  • have parents earning within 200% of federal poverty guidelines,
  • meet citizenship requirements,
  • and be eligible for federal financial aid.

Vanderbilt University

The university covers all family expenses and doesn’t include loans in financial aid. Families earning from $0 to $40,000 receive between $31,748 and $63,940 in awards.

For added knowledge, here are Ivy Leagues known for their adjusted tuition rates:

Brown University

Brown University covers 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need. Families earning less than $60,000 annually with assets under $100,000 are not required to contribute financially.

Harvard University

No loans are included in financial aid; parents making less than $60,000 don’t need to pay for college expenses. However, families with substantial assets, regardless of income, are expected to contribute more. Assets like home equity and retirement funds are not counted as resources.

Cornell University

Parents earning under $60,000 with assets under $100,000 pay no tuition. Students contribute from summer jobs and savings. The university evaluates each recipient’s case individually rather than having a set threshold.

Affordability and Financial Relief

Did you know? Financial challenges are the leading cause of student dropout. Over 40 million students today are unenrolled. According to Sallie Mae’s survey, roughly 26% of current undergraduates have thought about dropping out of college or are in danger of being dismissed. The top reason is financial challenges.

Another pressing issue today is student loan debts.

To stay in school, students incur more debts and loans. While financial assistance is in place to alleviate financial burdens, they’re still not enough to cover all educational costs. There is at least $1.7 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the US, with borrowers paying their lenders close to $30,000.

Student loans, while a temporary solution to immediate financial challenges, come with long-term consequences. These debts, often referred to as ‘sticky’ debts, are not easily discharged, even in bankruptcy. They can significantly impact your future, from limiting job flexibility to delaying major life milestones like buying a home.

However, there is hope.

Pursuing education through online colleges that offer sliding scale or reduced tuition models can significantly reduce the risk of dropping out and accumulating student loans. This approach allows you to focus more on your studies and less on working late hours to make ends meet. With lower tuition fees and no overwhelming debts, you can concentrate on your career and other life goals.

Encouragement of Diverse Student Populations:

Beyond monetary benefits, accessible online education leads to a better learning environment. When students interact with peers from different cultures, perspectives, and experiences, they gain invaluable skills such as

  • Empathy

Students in diverse classrooms develop a keen understanding of different economic statuses, allowing them to develop empathy for others. This is a great way of avoiding prejudice later in life.

  • Cultivates Cultural Awareness

Cultural awareness means understanding diverse values and beliefs. If you want to succeed in life, this understanding is crucial. It allows you to work with people from different backgrounds effectively.

  • Creativity

Creativity is about combining different ideas to create something fresh and special. People become more creative when exposed to more ideas and experiences. Scientific American mentions a study where groups with racial diversity solved problems better than those without diversity. Whether at work or in everyday life, diverse perspectives lead to more creative solutions.

Flexibility for Non-Traditional Students

Many of the recipients of sliding scale tuition are non-traditional students. Who are these students?

  • Working adults
  • Parents
  • Part-time students

Non-traditional students have additional responsibilities requiring a flexible education approach. While they’re qualified for various financial aid for online education, their circumstances can still be challenging. These students often face fluctuating incomes and limited assets, which can increase their risk of dropping out of school.

Sliding scale tuition models help students adjust how much they pay for school based on their earnings. This makes it easier for them to handle their money and stay in school without stressing much about costs. It lets them focus better on their studies and current responsibilities.

Economic Impact

Sliding scale tuition models will also benefit society. How? By producing more educated and trained professionals.

There’s a lot of talk about a “skills gap” in today’s job market. Employers struggle to find people with the right skills they need for their jobs. They spend a long time searching for suitable candidates, but they just can’t seem to find enough of them.

One reason for this is that employers are becoming increasingly demanding. They want applicants with more training and credentials. Understandably, employers want to ensure ROI. They want to be sure they’re receiving the best value for their money.

However, with the high cost of education, many potential workers can’t afford to get the education and training they need.

Many talented students are low-income; they’re known to strive harder for survival. Given the chance, this talented pool of students can greatly contribute to closing the skills gap and bolstering the economy. This will also decrease the poverty rate in the United States.


Sliding scale tuition models are integral to making online education more accessible. Unlike financial aid, such as scholarships for online students, this tuition reduction program offers a more sustainable and equitable approach to managing educational costs throughout a student’s enrollment. Yet, they often limit how many students can avail of the program.

Colleges will take different approaches to sliding-scale tuition models. It’s important to ask your prospective online schools about their offerings. You should also consider looking into other financial aid opportunities, including scholarships and grants.