Online Master’s Degrees Grow During COVID-19
- Graduate student enrollment grew last year, with marked interest in online STEM programs.
- Higher degrees in STEM fields hold value in the newly competitive job market.
- Even with the promise of a STEM-sized salary, a master's degree is costly.
U.S. colleges braced for low enrollment last fall, but the anticipated loss fell mostly on community colleges. While public, two-year institutions posted 10% enrollment losses compared to the previous fall, enrollment at public four-year colleges increased by 0.2%, with growth driven by graduate students.
Graduate school admissions are countercyclical — enrollment goes up when the market goes down. Graduate student enrollment went up 3.9% between fall 2019 and fall 2020. While some humanities disciplines — like philosophy — got a boost, the real momentum lies behind science and technology.
Tough economic times are typically good for graduate programs. Pandemic closures may have enabled grad schools to benefit from two additional factors. Many master's programs were already online, meaning they didn't have to reinvent their programs under deadline. Second, master's-degree seekers tend to be well-suited to learning online.
Growth of Online Master's Degrees
A fast-growing percentage of grad students were enrolling online well before the pandemic. Between 2008 and 2016, the share of students in online master's degree programs more than tripled, from 10% to 31%.
Online education may be particularly well suited for students in master's programs. Returning students tend to be employed and might have families to take care of. These students require the greater flexibility that online learning provides. They also may have an easier time keeping themselves on task.
Between 2008 and 2016, the share of students in online master's degree programs more than tripled.
Research suggests that grad students who enroll online tend to be more proactive and self-directed than undergrads. They can draw a clearer connection between their academic success and their career success, and enter programs with an eye towards the job they want.
For a large share of returning students, those jobs are in STEM fields. As students go back to school to build competitive, post-pandemic resumes, many seek out STEM credentials. Careers in science and technology post the highest projected salaries and predominate in emerging job markets.
High demand for STEM graduates and a growing federal budget for STEM education has led colleges to both expand their graduate offerings in science and technology and design them for online delivery. Recently, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville announced an online Master of Science (MS) degree in Computer Science and Penn State unveiled an online Master's in Marketing Insights and Analytics program.
Even Online, Higher Degrees Carry High Costs
The number of master's degrees awarded in the U.S. soared over the past two decades. Dubbed "the new bachelor's degree," master's degrees are more and more popular and increasingly offered online.
Despite the lower institutional costs of online programs, master's degrees continue to rise in cost. According to a pre-pandemic study by the Urban Institute, the net prices of master's programs — what students have left to pay after financial aid — have risen faster than bachelor's programs.
Despite the lower institutional costs of online programs, master's degrees continue to rise in cost.
Graduate students represent about one quarter of all student loan borrowers, but hold nearly half of the national student loan debt, which crested $1.7 trillion at the end of 2020. Unlike undergraduates, graduate students can borrow without an upper limit. The federal government also collects higher interest rates for graduate student loans.
Like with any education decision, when considering the option of returning to school, prospective graduate students should examine the potential benefits and costs of their options.
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