Best Online Master’s Degrees and Program Guide of 2021

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By the BestColleges Ranking Team

Published on August 2, 2021

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As colleges and universities navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we're continuing our efforts to provide you with useful student resources and the latest online program information. Check our coronavirus resources page to learn more.

If you're considering graduate school, take some time to learn about online master's programs. Online graduate schools offer flexible, affordable options to help you balance the demands of work, family, and your education. Use this guide to learn more.

As you near a decision about earning your degree online, reach out to admissions counselors to get details about specific programs, including admissions and course requirements.

Related Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What is a Master's Degree?

A master's degree is an advanced college degree awarded to students who complete graduate-level coursework. Master’s degree recipients can expect to develop theoretical, analytical, and/or professional expertise in their field of study.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Master's Degree Online?

The average length of a master's program for full-time, online or traditional students is two years. This can equal anywhere from 36 to 54 credit hours of study. Actual completion times may range from one to four years depending on the subject, program curriculum and format, and the number of credits completed per term.

Is a Master's Degree Worth it?

The worth of an online master's degree program is subjective, and may involve more than a simple calculation of the return on your tuition investment. Some things to consider include:

Cost

According to the most recent numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average program tuition for a graduate degree is $18,947. Some professional programs may exceed $100,000, so it's important to verify estimated costs with an admissions counselor.

Future Earning Potential

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that master's degree recipients earn a median weekly salary of $1,497. Comparatively, those with a bachelor's degree earn a median weekly salary of $1,248. This means that master's degree recipients earn an average of $12,948 more per year than bachelor's degree holders.

Professional Aspirations

If you wish to pursue a career as a licensed professional, a master's degree from an accredited institution may be mandatory. For example, licensed clinical social workers must hold a master of social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. State licensure requirements can be verified through your state government website.

Types of Online Master's Degree Programs

As interest in distance education grows, so does the number of graduate programs offered online. BestColleges features hundreds of unique pages dedicated to online master's degree programs. Use the following list to begin your search for a program that meets your goals.

Art & Design
Business & Management
Computers & Technology
Criminal Justice & Legal
Education & Teaching
Liberal Arts & Humanities
Nursing & Healthcare
Psychology & Counseling
Science & Engineering

More About Earning Your Master's Degree Online

Continue reading for additional information about earning your master's degree online. We'd love to help you become one of the 1 million students taking graduate coursework online.

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.

The NCES shows that approximately 33.7% of all college students in the U.S. enrolled in some form of distance education in 2018. 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 an 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.


Is it Better to Enroll in an Online Master's Degree Program in my State?

According to the NCES, most graduate students attend college out-of-state. Of the 933,000 [graduate] students who exclusively took distance education courses, 406,000 were enrolled at institutions located in the same state in which they resided, and 495,000 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. CollegeBoard found that, on average, in-state students pay $10,440 in annual tuition at four-years schools; out-of-state students pay $26,820 per year to attend the same school — an increase of more than 250% over their in-state counterparts.

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.

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.

How to Choose an Online Master's Degree

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:

true Cost

Creating a budget plan is an important first step for any prospective master's student. Browse tuition rates at schools on your list to see if the overall costs fit within your personal budget constraints. Add up all expenses — including tuition, housing, and student fees — to calculate an accurate cost estimate.

Research scholarships, grants, and other financial aid opportunities that are exclusively offered to students enrolled at certain institutions. Finally, 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 caught flack due to below-average academic offerings and student outcomes compared to their not-for-profit competitors. 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 earn a master's from other schools.

For-profit institutions can often provide the best academic pathway for students, and programs and student outcomes vary by school. Nonetheless, students should take the time to vet for-profit and not-for-profit schools 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.

Interview With Christopher Gerhart

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.

Applying to a Master's Degree Program

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

true 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.

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.

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BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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