Online vs. Traditional: What to expect from an online master’s degree program

The master’s degree is an academic degree awarded to students who complete accredited graduate programs. The average master’s program requires a two-year commitment, although completion times range from one to four years, depending on the chosen academic subject, the program’s curriculum and format, and the student’s enrollment level.

According to projections from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), roughly 798,000 master’s degrees will be conferred during the 2016-17 academic year. Using NCES data, the table below shows that master’s degree attainment has gradually risen over the last 20 years.

Source: NCES

The number of master’s degree recipients is expected to continue rising in the years to come; the NCES projects that ― between 2014 and 2025 ― postbaccalaureate enrollment will increase by 21% to a total of 3.5 million students. The master’s degree is considered the minimum attainment level for a wide range of career pathways in business, healthcare, education, counseling, and other professional fields. Additionally, the master’s can boost the earning potential and increase advancement opportunities for employees in fields where a bachelor’s degree is required, such as information technology, social work, and criminal justice.

Numerous colleges and universities offer online master’s degree programs, and the number of schools is growing on an annual basis. Online master’s programs allow students to access lecture materials, take exams, and communicate with professors from the comfort of their home computer without commuting to campus each day. This flexible format is particularly convenient for men and women who must balance coursework with part-time jobs, family care responsibilities, and other commitments. According to NCES data from Fall 2014, roughly 32.7% of postbaccalaureate students were enrolled in at least one online course, and 24.9% were exclusively enrolled in web-based classes.

ONLINE VS. CAMPUS-BASED MASTER’S DEGREES

On-Campus Full Time

Benefits

  • Convenient access to campus resources like libraries, computer labs, gyms, writing centers, and job boards
  • Many courses feature labs, practicum components, and other forms of hands-on education
  • Campus-based courses foster a collaborative environment where students can easily study and interact with their peers
  • Visiting campus makes it easier to schedule meetings with professors, advisers, and other faculty members

Drawbacks

  • Students with busy work and/or family schedules may struggle with the demands of synchronous (or not self-paced) coursework
  • Daily commuting may cause headaches for students who do not live close to campus
  • Those who study on-campus face higher overhead costs for transportation, parking, meals, and ― in some cases ― living accommodations
Evening/Weekend Classes

Benefits

  • The course schedule is designed for students with busy schedules
  • Meeting times are conducive for students who learn better at night or on the weekend
  • Students often have more time during the day to study and prepare for their course meetings

Drawbacks

  • Work, family time, and course meetings can create an exhausting schedule for some students
  • Course meetings are typically longer
  • Night and weekend classes may not be suitable for students with families
Hybrid/Blended

Benefits

  • Many students excel when they balance online and on-campus learning
  • Hybrid programs often allow students to review classroom lectures and study sessions using online playback tools
  • Minimal campus visits will save students money on commuting, parking, meals, and other daily expenses

Drawbacks

  • High-speed Internet access is usually required, which may be limiting for students who do not have this option
  • Those who prefer online learning may have a hard time with classroom sessions, and vice versa
  • A limited number of master’s degree programs are available in the hybrid or blended format
Online

Benefits

  • Asynchronous (or self-paced) learning is ideal for students who prefer to study on their own schedule, as well as those with busy work and/or family schedules
  • Current E-learning technology allows students to choose between studying at home or on the go using portable Wi-Fi-compatible devices
  • Online learning reduces ― and may even eliminate ― costs related to commuting, parking, meals, and on-campus living accommodations

Drawbacks

  • Some students struggle with the realities of online education, including minimal in-person interaction with peers and faculty members
  • Depending on their location, it may be cheaper to live, eat on, and commute to campus as opposed to living in an off-campus residence.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GET AN ONLINE MASTER’S DEGREE?

Master’s degrees vary significantly in terms of credit load, generally ranging from 35 to 60 total semester credits (or 60 to 90 quarter credits) depending on both the institution’s curricular requirements and the field of study. This amounts to roughly 12 to 20 total courses; the average student will complete their online master’s program within two years, regardless of whether his/her school follows a semester- or quarter-based calendar. However, many factors will affect completion time. These include:

Student Enrollment

According to U.S. News & World Report, students enrolled full-time in an online master’s degree program will complete their requirements ‘years’ ahead of those enrolled part-time.

Prerequisites and Transfer Credits

Many master’s online degree programs will only admit students who have completed select prerequisites in their field; if the student does not have all prerequisites on their transcript, then they may need to pass these courses in order to advance. Some students also enter their master’s program with transfer credits from another school; in some cases, they may receive ‘experiential’ credit for military service or professional experience, as well. Prerequisite requirements may extend the length of a master’s program, while transfer and experiential credit could potentially reduce the completion time.

Cohort vs. Individualized

In cohort-based master’s programs online, students enter the program simultaneously and take all subsequent courses together. The cohort structure is designed to foster interaction and build relationships between learners who are all at the same academic level. However, those who follow a more individualized pace may be able to finish their master’s degree ahead of students in cohort programs.

Failed Classes

A large number of master’s programs are structured sequentially, allowing students to enroll in successive courses that mirror their required curriculum. This format is designed to help students easily enroll in their required courses ― but if a student fails a course that is required for advancement, then he or she may be required to wait one or two terms until that course is available again. This can significantly extend the length of a master’s program.

The average online master’s degree will cost $20,000 to $50,000 in total tuition. Students must factor in additional expenses like books and course materials, administrative and online learning fees, and interest rates, as well as rent/mortgage payments, utility and Internet bills, food, and other living costs. This amounts to a serious financial investment for the vast majority of today’s students, although many can somewhat ease their financial burden by seeking out financial aid opportunities.

Average Cost for Graduate Degrees


Type of School Yearly Tuition Cost + Fees
Public Institutions $10,979
Private Non-Profit Institutions $25,171
Private For-Profit Institutions $14,265

Source: NCES

The Most Affordable Online Master’s Programs

Weighing the costs and benefits of an online master’s program compared to brick-and-mortar degree options is crucial. Online and on-campus courses usually share similar ― if not identical ― cost-per-credit rates. In a recent survey of college students by WCET, 63.2% of respondents noted that there was ‘no differential pricing’ for distance learning courses at their college or university. This does not include differing tuition rates offered for in-state and out-of-state students (please see below for more information on this topic).

According to U.S. News & World Report, the cost of learning online vs. learning on-campus often comes down to two variables: the student’s state residency status, and the type of degree-granting institution he or she is attending. Some schools will charge in-state online students a lower tuition rate than out-of-state online students; others will impose a flat tuition rate for all distance learners. Generally speaking, online courses tend to be less expensive for out-of-state students at public universities, as well as brick-and-mortar courses offered by private colleges. For in-state students, an online master’s degree may actually be more expensive than a campus-based program in the same subject. All prospective online master’s students should carefully research all colleges and universities they are interested in attending to determine the most cost-effective options.

Here are some more important considerations when calculating the cost of an online master’s degree:

  • The WCET survey noted that 53.6% of respondents stated that exclusively online students pay lower administrative fees than on-campus learners.
  • By minimizing or eliminating the need to commute to and from campus, online students can potentially spend more time earning money through part- or full-time employment.
  • The textbooks and course materials for online courses are often electronic, which can decrease the price-point by a considerable margin.
  • An online student’s cost of living accommodations are often on par with brick-and-mortar students. On-campus dormitories tend to be more expensive than leased apartments or houses ― especially if the rent is divided between more than one person. However, dorms often cover utility and Internet costs for residents, while those living off-campus will have to foot these bills themselves.

Average federal financial aid per full time enrolled
student for the 2015-2016 school year


Type of Aid Average Amount per Student
Grants/Scholarships $8,390
Federal Loans $4,720
Education Tax Credits/Deductions $1,290
Federal Work-Study $60
Total per year $14,460

Source: College Board

According to a survey by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, 60% of master’s students report feeling stressed about their personal finances; 58% of respondents say they feel dissatisfied with their current financial situation. These attitudes reflect substantial increases in college tuition costs in recent years; today, millions of postsecondary students in the U.S. must seek financial aid in order to afford their desired education. Although the bulk of federal student loans and grants are awarded to undergraduates, there are plenty of financial aid opportunities available to master’s degree students, as well.

For more information on federal loans and grants, scholarships, and other financial aid options for master’s degree-earners, please visit the following three links:

Scholarships & Financial Aid for Online College Students
The Debt-Free Degree
Understanding the FAFSA

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) notes that a master’s degree or higher is the minimum educational attainment level for roughly 11% of the 55 million job openings projected in the U.S. between 2010 and 2020. The survey noted that master’s degree-holding employees are most commonly found in fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), social sciences, education, government, management, healthcare, and community services.

Most career paths outside the aforementioned fields require a bachelor’s degree or less, but candidates with a master’s degree tend to earn higher salaries and advance in their careers more quickly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), master’s degree recipients earn a median weekly salary of $1,380 and face an unemployment rate of 2.4%. Comparatively, those with a bachelor’s degree earn a median weekly salary of $1,156 and face an unemployment rate of 2.7%. According to 2013 BLS data, the median annual salary for full-time employees (25 years and older) who completed their education with a master’s degree was $68,000; the median annual earnings for those who completed their education with a bachelor’s was $56,000 ― a difference of $12,000 per year.

Additional data from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) notes that projected median lifetime earnings for employees with a master’s are $2,671,000, compared to the $2,268,000 median lifetime earnings for those with a bachelor’s. This represents a 17% median lifetime earnings premium for master’s degree-holders. The table below looks at projected lifetime earnings for employees with an associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree in two different percentile groups. As the data indicates, master’s recipients in the 25th percentile outearned bachelor’s and associate degree-holding employees by 25% and 58%, respectively; and master’s recipients in the 75th percentile outearned bachelor’s and associate degree-holders by 13.2% and 58%, respectively.

Lifetime Earnings by Education – 2009 Dollars


  Associate Degree Bachelor’s Degree Master’s Degree
25th Percentile $1,177,100 $1,490,600 $1,864,400
75th Percentile $2,426,300 $3,388,700 $3,835,600

Source: CEW Georgetown

TYPES OF ONLINE STUDENTS

Many types of students pursue online master’s degrees. Some choose this academic pathway in order to earn more money and advance in their careers, while others do so in order to transition into a different line of work. The following profiles outline some of the students you’re likely to find in an master’s degree online program.

Career Accelerators

Career accelerators enter a master’s program with more professional experience than the majority of their peers, and often obtain a graduate degree in order to boost their annual salary and increase advancement opportunities. In many cases, they attend courses while employed in part- or full-time jobs. This group makes up 32% of all online students.

Industry Switchers

Industry switchers represent 36% of all online master’s degree students. Most are unhappy or dissatisfied with their current line of work, and looking to transition into a different career path. Like career accelerators, many industry switchers are currently employed; the format of online coursework provides a flexible learning alternative that allows them to keep earning money while still in school.

Academic Wanderers

This group ― also known as lifelong learners ― represent 16% of today’s online students. Academic Wanderers are typically adult learners who have returned to the classroom in order to build on their earlier studies a few years after earning an undergraduate degree.

Best Colleges for Older Students

CAREERS THAT REQUIRE A MASTER’S DEGREE

As discussed above, some career paths require employees to earn a master’s degree before they enter the workforce. This trend is most common in the fields of education, healthcare, social science, and STEM fields. The master’s can also serve as a useful stepping-stone for careers that require a Ph.D. or doctoral degree.

The following list includes some of the most popular career paths that require a master’s degree.

  • Postsecondary education administrators: These administrators oversee the student services, academic programs, and research activities of colleges and universities. Most institutions prefer to hire candidates with a master’s or Ph.D. to fill top-level administrator roles; advanced education in fields like accounting and human resources ensures these employees have the requisite organization, communication, and management skills.
  • Nurse midwives: Midwives provide medical exams and family planning services for female patients. They also assist pregnant women during the prenatal, delivery, and postnatal stages of childbirth. A master’s degree from an accredited program is required as part of the state licensing process; midwives must be licensed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Nurse anesthetists: Nurse anesthetists provide anesthesia to patients undergoing operations, surgeries, and other medical procedures. They also assist patients by answering medical questions and helping them manage their pain. Like midwives, nurse anesthetists must earn a master’s degree in order to obtain their state-required license.
  • Physician assistants: Working alongside physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare providers, physician assistants (or PAs) provide a wide range of services related to patient examination, diagnosis, and treatment. Most PAs must earn a master’s degree in order to sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE); PA certification is required in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Political scientists: Political scientists research different areas of politics ― such as law and justice, economics, and government systems ― and use their findings to predict trends and future issues. Candidates with a bachelor’s in political science tend to receive low-level job offers, while those with a master’s or Ph.D. are typically chosen for top positions due to their extensive skills and knowledge in the field. Some master’s in political science recipients go on to teach at colleges and universities, as well; the master’s is considered the minimum educational requirement for the vast majority of postsecondary teaching jobs.
  • Statisticians: Statisticians analyze different data sets in order to calculate averages, medians, means, and other numerical patterns; their findings are often used to forecast trends and create organizational standards. A bachelor’s degree will be sufficient for entry-level positions, but candidates with a master’s in statistics are prized for their advanced proficiency in mathematics and data analysis.

Christopher Gerhart – Master’s in Addiction Studies

For some personal insight into the opportunities a master’s degree can provide, we spoke with Christopher Gerhart, a small business owner who received his master’s degree in Addiction Studies online from the University of South Dakota in 2013.

In your opinion, is earning an online master’s degree easier than earning a traditional, on-campus degree?

My wife completed law school at Texas Tech, in Lubbock, TX and while we were there, I took one graduate level class, so I have some grounds for comparison, both from my own experience and observing hers. Earning my degree online was easier in some ways and harder in others. Working at my own pace, on my own schedule made my experience smoother in many ways, but it also could also present challenges at times. Having classmates around the world in similar demographics (employed, family life, more life experience) was helpful. At the same time, I missed some of the face-to-face discussion that a student would receive at a traditional, on-campus program.

Have opinions of fully online programs changed in the recent years?

I think that there are a lot of credible options out there for online schools. Opinions of employers and licensing boards vary; but, the common wisdom that I have experienced is that if a school has a brick and mortar presence, it tends to be a better choice when choosing an online program. Most people don’t question where I got my degree, just what licensing and certification I have.

Do employers respect online master’s degrees?

I have had two employers since earning my degree online. One was the company I was working for while I was in school. I did my internship and supervision hours there with my clinical and management supervisors. The other was with another company and they did not ask where I got my degree as long as I had one. I am now in private practice and don’t think of my online degree any differently than I would have if it was a degree from a brick-and-mortar program.

How much work is it to get an online master’s degree? How much time does it take?

The amount of work I put into my degree was reflected directly by my 3.5 GPA. The more I worked at it, the better I did in class, on papers and during exams. I worked full time during my studies and did not have much trouble balancing my life. My daughter was young (3-6 years old) and my wife was supportive. That said, I did not spend very much time on social media, watching television, or in my garden. I had a number of late nights and early mornings. If I was up and concerned about my studies, I just got up and worked on them.

Who is the ideal student for an online master’s program?

I think that the ideal online student is self-motivated, balanced, and committed to making their life, and the lives of those around them better. I had highly successful classmates that ranged in age from their early 20’s to their late 70’s. Some were geographically isolated; others were involved in their local communities or careers such that leaving to attend graduate school was not an option.

An online program is not for everyone. Be honest with yourself about your own level of dedication and engagement.

Before settling on an online master’s degree program, applicants should carefully research all potential schools and grade them using the same set of criteria. These factors include the following:

Cost

Creating a budget plan is an important first step for any prospective master’s student. Browse the tuition rates at each school on your list to see if the overall costs will fit within your personal budget constraints. Add up all expenses ― including tuition, housing, and student fees ― to calculate an accurate cost estimate. Also research scholarships, grants, and other financial aid opportunities that are exclusively offered to students enrolled at certain institutions. Finally, be sure to look at the student outcomes of each school ― particularly the average salaries of master’s-earning graduates after they leave school.

Flexibility

The choice between a synchronous or asynchronous master’s online program should come down to student preference. Some learners appreciate the flexible schedule of a self-paced program, and look forward to potentially earning their degree ahead of schedule. Others prefer a firmer academic structure, and don’t mind investing in the full two years (or more) in order to earn their master’s degree.

Proximity

The distance between your current residence and your school’s campus may play an important role in your decision. While most coursework in an online master’s program will be done at home, some courses require regular campus visits. These include classes with lab and/or practicum components. Living close to campus also allows you to utilize school resources like libraries, computer labs, writing centers, and job boards, which are not always available online.

Not-for-profit vs. For-profit

For-profit online colleges and universities have recently caught flack due to below-average academic offerings and student outcomes compared to their not-for-profit competitors. As a result, many students who graduate with an online master’s from a for-profit school are saddled with more debt, but considered less employable than those who have earned a master’s from other schools. It should be noted that for-profit institutions often provide the best academic pathway for students, and programs and student outcomes vary by school. Nonetheless, students should take the time to vet each for-profit and not-for-profit school on their list to look for past criticisms and controversies.

Private vs. Public

For most students, total cost is the primary consideration when choosing between public and private schools. At private colleges, the tuition rates for online courses tend to be less expensive than the rates for both brick-and-mortar courses and out-of-state students. In contrast, in-state online students enrolled at public universities often pay more in tuition than their in-state counterparts attending courses on campus.

TYPES OF MASTER’S DEGREES

Those who choose to pursue a master’s degree online can choose from several different learning pathways. Four of the most common master’s degree options are detailed below. Please note that a master’s degree is different from a graduate certificate. A master’s degree typically involves two years of comprehensive study in an academic subject; a graduate certificate, on the other hand, features three to seven courses focusing on a specific area of study, and can usually be completed in one year or less.

Master of Arts (MA): MA programs are concentrated in subjects related to liberal arts, social sciences, and education. Fields of study include political science, sociology, English, foreign languages, and education at all levels. A relatively small amount of fieldwork is required for most MA programs, and most culminate in a capstone experience or project. Most MAs are terminal degrees, meaning they are the highest academic credential in that particular field; MA degrees in education are a notable exception.

Master of Science (MS): MS degree programs primarily focus on research and technical training. Common areas of study for an MS degree include science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and healthcare. Most MS pathways culminate in a master’s thesis, which involves an extensive amount of academic research. Most MS degrees are not terminal, and students will have the option of pursuing a doctorate in the same field once they have completed their master’s program.

Master of Business Administration (MBA): The MBA is designed for students with undergraduate business experience that are planning to take on roles in corporate leadership and strategy. In addition to a general MBA, students may also earn an MBA specialization in fields like finance and accounting, human resources, marketing, supply chain logistics, and project management. The MBA is considered a terminal degree, and most programs culminate in a research paper or capstone experience that revolves around trends and issues of modern business.

Master of Fine Arts (MFA): The MFA is a graduate degree for singers, musicians, actors, artists, and other students with a background in the humanities. Very little research (if any) is required in an MFA program. Most MFA coursework will be dedicated to two core area: theory and classical training. MFA programs often culminate in a formal presentation, during which students introduce or perform original work. The MFA is considered a terminal degree

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN): The MSN is designed for experienced nurses who are pursuing careers as midwives, anesthetists, nurse practitioners, and other advanced roles in the field. The coursework features extensive hands-on training, the bulk of which will take place at a hospital, physician’s office, or other healthcare facility. The MSN is not a terminal degree ― Doctor of Nursing Practice programs are offered nationwide ― but it will be sufficient for most advanced nursing positions.

Master of Social Work (MSW): Although careers in social work are generally attainable with a bachelor’s degree, the MSW is geared toward aspiring social workers who plan to work in clinical settings, or take on managerial roles. MSW concentrations are often broken up into three categories: micro, which focuses on diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues; macro, which is more concentrated in community development and social services administration; and mezzo, a generalist pathway that bridges the gap between micro and macro specializations.

Business Administration: A Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree is aimed at both students who have earned an undergraduate degree in business and established professionals seeking more advancement opportunities. Some of the most popular concentrations in business administration master’s programs include finance, human resources, marketing, and executive management.

Education: The Master of Education degree is considered the educational minimum for professors at community colleges and most high school teachers, as well as many educators who work at elementary and middle schools. In addition to teaching, students in these programs may earn specializations in fields like educational leadership, curriculum and instruction, or special education. Many students who earn a master’s in education go on to earn their doctorates, as well.

Health Professions: Many nurses, physician’s assistants, and other healthcare workers choose to earn a master’s degree in order to qualify for leadership roles in hospitals and clinics. This pathway is also suitable for doctors, pharmacists, and other aspiring professionals who need a doctorate in order to find work. Concentrations at the master’s level include nursing, healthcare administration, epidemiology, and medical technology.

Engineering: Although most careers in engineering are attainable with a bachelor’s degree, the master’s in engineering is ideal for experienced students and professionals pursuing leadership roles in their fields. The bulk of these master’s programs are concentrated in niche engineering fields, such as electrical, civil, chemical, mechanical, and software engineering.

Public Administration and Social Services: Many master’s students plan for careers in the public sector, working for government agencies or social service providers. A master’s degree in public administration and social services is ideal for those who aspire to become elected officials, city planners, treasurers, financial auditors, or social workers.

The Student’s Guide to Choosing a Major

IS IT BETTER TO ATTEND AN ONLINE MASTER’S DEGREE PROGRAM IN MY STATE?

According to the NCES, most graduate students attend college out-of-state. Of the 726,000 [graduate] students who exclusively took distance education courses, 298,000 were enrolled at institutions located in the same state in which they resided, and 383,000 were enrolled at institutions in a different state. A school’s location will significantly impact the overall cost of a master’s degree program. Although rates vary by institution, most colleges and universities offer lower tuition for students who are residents of the state where their brick-and-mortar campus is located. A survey by College Data found that, on average, in-state students pay $9,650 in annual tuition; out-of-state students pay $24,930 per year to attend the same school ― an increase of more than 250% over their in-state counterparts.

Some master’s students may be able to pay in-state tuition rates regardless of their residency status. Many colleges and universities will grant in-state residency to anyone who has resided in that state for at least one year, allowing master’s degree-seekers to reduce their financial burden by relocating one year prior to enrollment. A growing number of institutions also offer in-state rates to students after they have attended classes at the school for six months to one year (although this may require on-campus attendance). If in-state tuition is not feasible, master’s students may still be able to reduce their tuition rates by a significant margin through a system known as state authorization reciprocity. Select U.S. schools offer reduced out-of-state tuition rates for students from neighboring states. For example, the Midwest Student Exchange Program offers lower out-of-state rates for students from nine other states in that region of the country.

Online students are usually able to pay in-state tuition if their current residence is located in that particular state. Online degree programs utilize tracking technology that allows them to pinpoint the location of each student, preventing anyone living out-of-state from paying in-state tuition rates. As with brick-and-mortar students, the tuition policy for online students will vary by school. Some charge all online students the same tuition price regardless of state residency; in most cases, this rate is cheaper than the school’s out-of-state rate, but more expensive than the in-state rate. Online students should research the tuition policies of each school they are considering ― and contact campus officials if possible ― in order to determine the most affordable options.

In addition to lower tuition rates, master’s degree-seeking students often choose to attend college in their home state for other reasons too. These include unique degree programs and specialization options, athletic programs, and well-renowned counseling and advisement services.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS?

Most colleges and universities offering master’s programs are divided into two groups: private colleges and public universities. Private colleges receive their financing through donors, grants, student tuition, administrative fees, and on-campus services. The student populations are much lower at private colleges, and the student-to-faculty ratio is typically lower than 20 to 1. Public universities, on the other hand, are primarily funded through the federal government. Student attendance is much higher, and courses sizes tend to be larger ― sometimes hundreds of students in a single class.

There are pros and cons for both of these institutions. The tuition at private colleges tends to be more expensive than the rates offered at public universities. The NCES notes that the average annual tuition rates during the 2014-15 academic year were $16,188 for public institutions and $41,970 for private non-profit institutions. The tuition difference is due, in large part, to the lack of federal funding that private colleges receive. However, these institutions offer a more inclusive atmosphere for students, while the courses at public universities are typically too large for professors to provide individualized attention to each student.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FOR-PROFIT AND NONPROFIT SCHOOLS?

As the name implies, a ‘for-profit school’ functions as a profit-seeking business with the goals of marketing and selling educational services to students, and producing returns for the institution’s shareholders. Alternatively, not-for-profit schools do not generate a profit; all surplus funds are allocated back into libraries, labs, student services, and other institutional resources.

In recent years, for-profit schools have garnered some negative press over subpar academic offerings, poor student outcomes, and high rates of debt among graduates. However, not all press surrounding for-profit education has been bad. According to the NCES, the average student attending a for-profit school paid $23,372 in tuition during the 2014-15 school year. This figure falls short of the average private college tuition prices during that same year. Selectivity is another perk, since online for-profit schools can usually accommodate more students than not-for-profit brick-and-mortar institutions. Many students enroll in for-profit colleges because they have not been accepted elsewhere, making these schools a good safety school option.

Students should meticulously research all colleges and universities, whether they are for-profit or not-for-profit. Accreditation is one of the most important factors; all legitimate schools have been accredited at either the regional, national, and/or programmatic levels (see below). Also be sure to plug the school’s name into an Internet search to learn more about any controversies or criticisms surrounding its degree programs and student outcomes.

Average In-State Tuition

IS AN ONLINE MASTER’S DEGREE AS GOOD AS AN ON-CAMPUS DEGREE?

Online higher learning has become a hot ― and occasionally heated ― topic in recent years. During that time, the number of online degree programs has skyrocketed. A study by the University of the Potomac found that more than 250 accredited colleges and universities offer online courses to students. Another survey from the Babson Research Group noted that approximately 28% of all college students in the U.S. ― roughly 5.8 million men and women ― enrolled in at least one online course in 2014, representing a 2.5% increase in online attendance in just two years. As the graphics below illustrate, most students, professors, and academic leaders today believe that online education is just as effective as ― if not more effective than ― brick-and-mortar education at producing skilled, knowledgeable graduates who bring value to their professional fields.

71.4% of academic leaders view learning outcomes – the skills and knowledge a student is expected to attain – from online classes as comparable or superior to face-to-face courses

Employers are coming around too. Although some remain convinced that online degrees are less valuable than brick-and-mortar degrees, most equate the two and do not discriminate when it comes to hiring qualified graduates. According to a recent article by U.S. News & World Report, experts cite two important factors. The first is accreditation; if a college or university is properly accredited, then the educational delivery method makes little difference to most employers. Name recognition is the second factor, as certain institutions have a more favorable reputation than others in certain niche career fields. One interviewee ― the director of a career services company with more than 100,000 clients ― noted in the article that roughly 75% of her clients believe online degrees are on par with brick-and-mortar credentials.

Annual Trends in Online Education

When it comes to researching colleges and universities, accreditation should be the first consideration. Accreditation refers to a comprehensive vetting process, during which individual institutions are evaluated based on academic curricula, faculty credentials, campus resources, student outcomes, and other important criteria. Official, accreditation-granting agencies conduct the vetting; this process can last up to several months before accreditation is awarded or denied. Schools must also renew their accreditation once every few years. If the school’s performance has declined since accreditation was initially awarded, then that institution may lose its accreditation; if this occurs, then all credits earned at the school will become non-transferrable.

There are currently three types of accreditation that schools can receive. Regional accreditation is primarily bestowed on schools that confer academic degrees. A total of six regional accreditors operate in the U.S., vetting and evaluating schools within their particular area of the country. Not to be confused with regional accreditation, national accreditation is most often given to technical colleges, vocational schools, and for-profit colleges. There are 10 agencies in the U.S. that provide national accreditation. Although reviews are mixed, a large number of academic experts believe that the standards for national accreditation are significantly lower than those for regional accreditation. The third type of accreditation is known as programmatic accreditation. This is awarded to subdivisions of colleges and universities concentrated in one academic field, such as nursing, medicine, law, business, or public policy. In most cases, programmatic accreditation is reserved for master’s and Ph.D. programs, although some bachelor’s fields (such as nursing and psychology) may also receive it. Although it will depend on their field of study, master’s degree-seekers should ensure that all schools they are considering have received regional accreditation and ― if applicable ― that their degree program has received programmatic accreditation.

Accreditation agencies are recognized by two different bodies: the Department of Education (DOE), which operates as part of the federal government; and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which is a non-profit organization. Neither of these bodies awards accreditation, but rather evaluates the efficacy of accreditation-granting agencies. To learn more about officially recognized accreditation-granting agencies, please visit the full listings provided by the DEA and the CHEA.

From start to finish, the process of researching different schools, applying to top choices, and receiving admission can last for several months ― up to a year or longer, in some cases. The following section includes some of the most important steps that aspiring master’s students will need to complete prior to enrolling in courses and obtaining their degree.

Things to Consider

Flexibility

This will be a particularly important consideration for students who are employed full- or part-time and plan to keep their jobs while they earn their master’s. Asynchronous programs allow them to study at their own pace, which can be ideal for those with demanding schedules. Synchronous programs may be harder to handle while working, but students tend to complete these pathways faster than asynchronous pathways.

Transfer Credit Opportunities

Master’s students may be able to enter their graduate programs with a handful of credits if they have held certain jobs or served in the military. This is known as experiential credit, and is awarded on the basis that the student’s professional background negates their need for taking certain courses. This type of credit is not always available, but students with experience in certain areas should look into experiential credit opportunities at schools they are considering; just one course can potentially save them thousands of dollars.

Admissions Deadline

It is absolutely imperative to submit all application materials ahead of the school’s admissions deadline. Some institutions will receive and review applications during certain periods of the year, and will discard applications that arrive outside that window. Others offer ‘rolling admission’, and will continuously review applications and grant admission to students throughout the calendar year. On average, schools with rolling admission will issue a response to applicants within four to six weeks of receiving their application materials.

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What You Need to Apply:

Testing

Like undergraduate programs, many master’s programs require applicants to submit standardized test scores. The most common test taken by master’s applicants is the Graduate Record Examinations, or GRE. The GRE features three sections: verbal, consisting of reading comprehension, vocabulary, and critical reasoning; quantitative, which consists of mathematics and logical reasoning; and a critical writing assessment, which is optional. The GRE is scored on a scale of 130 to 170, and only accounts for the verbal and quantitative sections. In addition to the GRE, some master’s programs require standardized test scores from exams concentrated in certain academic fields. These exams include the GMAT (business), LSAT (law), and the MCAT (medical). Students who speak English as a second language (ESL) may be required to take a graduate entrance exam that assesses their abilities to read, write, and understand English. The three most common ESL exams for master’s students are the TOEFL, IELTS, and MELAB exams. It’s important to note that many schools do not require standardized test scores of any kind for master’s degree applicants.

Letters of Recommendation

Master’s program applicants should carefully choose who they ask to write their letters of recommendation. The best options usually include undergraduate professors and advisors, current and past employers, relevant co-workers, and other individuals who have firsthand knowledge of the applicant’s academic and/or professional background. Family members, friends, and classmates should be avoided. Be sure to allow enough time for the chosen references to write the letter; generally, six weeks prior to mailing the application is a good benchmark.

Resume

Applicants should tailor their resume to reflect academic and professional experiences that are relevant to their master’s degree field of study. Prioritize jobs that showcase skills and knowledge related to the program, and be sure to include community service projects, volunteer experiences, and other applicable details that will bolster the employment history. Make sure all contact information is accurate and up-to-date; for most applications, a cover letter will not be required.

Personal Statement/Essay

Like undergraduate applications, many graduate school applications require candidates to write a personal statement and/or prompted essay. This section gives students the chance to show off their writing and critical thinking skills. The amount of writing requirements will usually vary from one or two to as many as five or six, depending on the school. Write or type everything out beforehand in order to review the language and check the grammar. If completing a paper application, always use a pen and write with the best possible penmanship.

Official Transcripts

In order to prove they have successfully completed their bachelor’s degree studies, master’s programs will always ask applicants to submit official undergraduate transcripts; high school transcripts are usually not required. An official transcript is printed on official school stationery and sealed in a tamper-proof envelope; these are easily available from undergraduate institutions for a small fee. Unofficial transcripts are also available, but applicants should always submit official transcripts as part of their master’s program application.

GMAT Prep Guide
GRE Prep Guide

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