Get an Online Bachelor's Degree for a Bargain: Distance Learning at its Cheapest From a South African University

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Are You Ready for This?

What would you think about only paying $4400 for four years of college? For a distance learning degree from a university with an interesting international reputation? And, you can take that degree in most of the subjects taught at American colleges and universities. Does it sound too cheap? Where’s the catch?

Introducing UNISA

The University of South Africa (UNISA) has been offering online and distance learning degrees for a long time. The UNISA web site is not the easiest to navigate on earth, but within a few minutes, you can gather the following information. To enter you must provide evidence of a US high school diploma and admission from a recognized US university, or SAT scores of 1050 or better. Your fees include an annual fee for each of three basic years, plus a slightly higher fee for your “honours” year.

On the British system of education, the basic baccalaureate program is 3 years long. US authorities usually expect a four year degree, so students should take the final, honors year to be assured of a degree equivalent to a US baccalaureate. There are additional fees for taking the program from a foreign country, such as the US, because you will need to take examinations at specified exam centers, some of which are in Canada.

What’s Involved in This Kind of Education?

Since the University of South Africa operates on the British model of college education, your entire college experience will focus on your major. There will not be any “general education.” Your education will be broken down into modules, each of which will involve “sitting a paper,” which means taking an examination, or in some cases submitting a written essay. Your studying will be largely self-directed, using study plans provided by the university. You will be responsible for getting your own books and providing your own motivation.

If you like the model, you can also pursue masters and doctoral degrees by the same method and with the same institution.

What’s It Worth?

Over 250,000 students enroll at the University of South Africa. On the downside, our recent research into graduate programs around the world indicates that South Africa has lost many of its university faculty since the end of apartheid. On the upside, the University of South Africa has a long tradition of offering distance degrees on this model. There is no reason why you could not attain a good baccalaureate degree by pursuing a program of self-directed readings and research, then taking examinations and submitting papers.

Suppose you have to make several trips to some other city or to Canada to take your exams. Suppose the whole program costs you $8000 over four years. Your total cost will still be one tenth of what it would cost to attend a state university. The credential you get will be the same credential that is accepted by the US government and by US universities for admission to the US and to US universities for graduate school. If you have a particular employer or grad school in mind, such as a school district or a teacher certification program, it might be wise to ask ahead.

How Can This Be Real?

So how can a bachelor’s degree be so cheap? Let’s see what you are NOT paying for: libraries, labs, a football team, student health services, office appointments with professors, class time, clubs, a pretty campus with ivy covered buildings, dorm food, a counseling service, a placement service, an alumni organization … a long list.

What are you buying? A program of readings and papers. A set of examinations in which you can show what you have learned. A final degree to demonstrate your mastery of the subject to the world.

Are you ready for that kind of focus and simplicity?


  • University of South Africa,
  • Nerad and Heggelund, eds. Toward a Global PhD? Forces and Forms in Doctoral Education Worldwide, University of Washington Press, 2008.