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.
Online Master's Program: Frequently Asked Questions
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 master's degree can range from $19,000 for in-state residents at a public university to over $36,000 at a private university. Some professional programs may exceed $100,000, so it's important to verify estimated costs with an admissions counselor. Also of note, some colleges charge the same tuition to online students regardless of whether or not they hold in-state residency. Please verify with an admissions counselor before applying.
- Earning Potential: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that master's degree recipients earn a median weekly salary of $1,434. Comparatively, those with a bachelor's degree earn a median weekly salary of $1,198. This means that master's degree recipients earn an average of $12,272 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 Programs
As interest in distance education grows, so do the number of graduate programs offered online. BestColleges features over 130 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
Schools Offering Accredited Online Master's Programs
If you're unsure about what you want to study, another way to begin your search for an online master's program is to see what specific schools have to offer. The following list highlights schools that offer a broad range of master's programs online.
|College||Location||# of Master's Programs
|Southern New Hampshire University||Manchester, NH||101|
|University of Florida||Gainesville, FL||74|
|Liberty University||New Castle, DE||64|
|Wilmington University||Lynchburg, VA||55|
|Nova Southeastern University||Fort Lauderdale, FL||52|
|Pennsylvania State University - World Campus||University Park, PA||51|
|George Washington University||Washington, D.C.||48|
|Texas A & M University - College Station||College Station, TX||44|
|Concordia University - Chicago||Chicago, IL||43|
|East Carolina University||Greenville, NC||40|
|National University||La Jolla, CA||38|
|North Carolina State University at Raleigh||Raleigh, NC||38|
|University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||Champaign, IL||38|
|Northeastern University Global Network||Boston, MA||38|
|Concordia University - Wisconsin||Mequon, WI||37|
Continue reading for additional information about earning your master's degree online. We'd love to help you become one of the 1.2 million students taking graduate coursework online.
Is an Online Master's Degree as Good as an On-Campus Degree?
Online higher learning has grown in popularity among students and schools over the last decade. 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. Furthermore, Inside Higher Education recently reported that roughly 6.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in 2017 – a 5.6% increase from the prior year.
Employers are coming around too. Although some remain convinced that online degrees are less valuable than brick-and-mortar degrees, BestColleges 2019 annual survey data indicates that 61% of employers believe that online degrees are as good or better than on-campus programs. 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.
Is it Better to Enroll in an Online Master's 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.