Learn all the benefits of an online master's degree program, and discover the best and most affordable colleges that offer them.
Feb 13, 2019 | By Maggie Wirtanen
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If you are interested in advancing your skills or changing careers, a master's degree could be the opportunity you've been looking for. Master's degree programs let you study a specific field, like information technology or teaching, in great depth. Generally speaking, master's degrees:
Are considered to be "graduate level," meaning the courses are more focused and rigorous than courses for an associate or bachelor's program
Can be completed in two years
Can be done on a full-time or part-time basis
Are offered through colleges and universities
May require a final project or thesis
The rationale for earning a master's degree can vary from person to person, but as a general rule, a person applying for a master's program is probably interested in one or both of the following goals:
Advancing skills: The courses in a master's degree program are usually specific to the subject being studied. Such courses enable students to look at the subject in greater depth and even to examine different types of research and evidence-based practices. Some master's degree programs also allow students to concentrate in a particular aspect of their subject to build even more specialized skills. As an example, an online master's degree in information technology may offer concentrations in business intelligence and analytics, information security and assurance, or project management.
Switching careers: In some, but not all cases, students may be able to pursue a new career through a master's degree program. An example of this is nursing: some nursing programs allow students to apply even if they have an undergraduate degree in another field. Some schools even offer master's programs in one subject, such as accounting, that only accept students whose previous degrees were in a different subject. Such programs allow a person with a background in multiple subjects to bring unique insight to their career, a trait that may be appealing to a prospective employer.
Benefits of Earning an Online Master's Degree
A master's degree often requires a lot of time and effort to earn, but can be well worth the endeavor for a multitude of reasons. Just a few of the advantages afforded by a master's degree include:
Higher weekly pay on average: The difference in average weekly earnings between a person with a master's degree and a person with a high school diploma is more than $600 (BLS.gov). In fact, some careers, such as teaching, may directly increase an employee's pay when that employee completes a higher degree than what they had previously earned.
Even lower unemployment rate: Perhaps due to their in-depth skill set, the unemployment rate for people with master's degrees is almost half of what it is for those with high school diplomas (BLS.gov).
Time flexibility: Often, one of the obstacles for professionals considering a master's program is the fact that they are professionals and are therefore generally working long or unusual hours. Making the time to take courses can feel impossible. This is where online courses can be a lifesaver. Not only do they reduce or eliminate the need to commute to a campus — freeing up time for the actual coursework — but online lectures and assignments can often be completed whenever is convenient for you, allowing you to enhance your education without abandoning your career.
Best Online Colleges for Master’s Degree Programs
Using a methodology that ranks colleges based on factors like program availability, distance education participation, affordability, available student services and more, we present our ranking of the best online colleges offering online master's degree programs.
Be sure to view our full methodology by clicking the button below.
The University of Utah offers just eight online master's degree programs, but the list of subjects covered via distance education at this Salt Lake City school encompasses some vital areas of study for today's career market. For example, tech-oriented students can take their education two separate ways -- focusing either on business or on science and research -- with online Master of Science (M.S.) degrees in information systems or electrical and computer engineering, respectively.
Why it's good for online master's degrees: The distance education capabilities here can be an advantage even if you're more interested in one of the university's dozens of campus-based graduate plans. Taking one or two courses online each semester can help you ease your commute or accelerate your path to graduation.
Founded by preacher and televangelist Jerry Falwell in 1971, Liberty University is a private, faith-based institution that weaves Christian religious teaching into its campus culture and general curriculum. As such, students seeking online education in religious subjects are likely to find a wealth of opportunity at this Lynchburg, Virginia, school. Online graduate degrees are available in Biblical studies, Christian ministry, Christian apologetics and more, as well as nearly 20 areas of study for Master of Divinity (M.Div.) students.
Why it's good for online master's degrees: This central Virginia, school is also home to an uncommon distinction: nearly 50 online master's degree programs and specializations are available to campus-based students, but the list of online degrees and specializations has nearly twice as many options.
Total enrollment at Grand Canyon University was more than 83,000 in 2018, placing the Arizona-based school among the largest one percent of schools in the country. Online study is very popular here, as well, with an online graduate catalog that contains nearly 100 degrees and specializations and more than 90 percent of the student body taking at least some of their coursework via distance education.
Why it's good for online master's degrees: GCU's status as a high-enrollment online institution can be a blessing to students who aren't immediately confident in their readiness to study in the virtual classroom. Your professors, administrators and fellow learners are likely to be able to offer plenty of help as you're getting used to the online format.
Known until 2018 as Kaplan University, Purdue University Global is a nationally distributed institution that educates a higher percentage of its students online than just about every other university in the country. Reports indicate that fully 100 percent of graduate students enrolled at Purdue Global take at least some of their courses online. Despite the heavy focus on distance education, Purdue Global also operates 14 brick-and-mortar locations around the country.
Why it's good for online master's degrees: Students here who want to spend less money and time earning their master's degree online can take advantage of the ExcelTrack model, which uses a competency-based approach and is designed for self-motivated, highly disciplined learners.
East Carolina University (Greenville, North Carolina)
The catalog of master's degrees available at East Carolina University lists more than 75 options, including programs that lead to Master of Social Work (M.S.W.), Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) and Master of Construction Management (M.C.M.) and other specialized professional degrees. ECU also offers nearly 80 graduate certificates and multiple accelerated and dual-degree options for students who prefer a shorter and more intensive study plan.
Why it's good for online master's degrees: The online graduate catalog at ECU is robust as well, offering around 50 different degree plans and concentrations that includes not only common online master's degrees like the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Arts in Education (M.A.Ed.) but also some rarer subjects like library science, music education and fine art ceramics.
Founded in 1971 by a retired Lieutenant Commander of the U.S. Navy, National University has been offering courses in the virtual classroom since the 1990s. A total of roughly 55 campus-based and online master's degree programs are available at NU, including high-value tech degrees in fields like cybersecurity, data science and management information systems that are delivered entirely online.
Why it's good for online master's degrees: Administrators at NU go the extra mile to make their programs accessible to military servicemembers and veterans. It's listed as both a Yellow Ribbon school and a Military Friendly college, and it offers military students special one-month classes on campus, online and at more than a dozen on-base sites across the U.S.
Lamar University is a public institution that educates more than 15,000 students each year. The Beaumont school offers course credit for qualifying life experience and military service, which can be good news for nontraditional students, and it makes tuition installment plans accessible to students who might have trouble paying their entire semester's bill in one lump sum.
Why it's good for online master's degrees: More than half of the more than 50 graduate degrees on offer at LU can be earned at least partially in the virtual classroom, with close to 20 programs available entirely online. Hybrid plans, which involve a combination of online and campus-based work, can be a good compromise for busy students who aren't quite ready for a fully online program.
This Georgia institution is of the 50 largest public institutions in the country by enrollment, reporting a total student body of close to 36,000 in 2018. More than 90 percent of those students are undergraduates, however, so graduate courses at Kennesaw State University are likely to be taught in close-knit environments where individual students have access to personalized time with professors when they need it.
Why it's good for online master's degrees: KSU has a clearly demonstrated affordability for in-state students -- full-time undergraduate tuition and fees came in under the 2018 statewide average by about $2,000 -- and graduate tuition is similarly manageable. A full-time semester of graduate work also comes in under the state average, by a difference of about $1,300.
University of the Cumberlands (Williamsburg, Kentucky)
It may have welcomed its first class of students more than 125 years ago, but today's graduate students at the University of the Cumberlands are anything but stuck in the past. The Williamsburg, Kentucky, school reports that nearly 99 percent of graduate-level students were either pursuing online master's degree programs or completing at least some portion of their coursework in the online environment.
Why it's good for online master's degrees: Students hoping to earn an MBA or other business master's degree online should find plenty of opportunity at UC. Two different MBAs are available, a standard general degree and an executive program, and the list of subjects covered in other online graduate business programs includes project management, information technology, digital forensics, strategic management and more.
Wilmington University educates roughly 20,000 students each year, of which more than 8,100 are enrolled in the school's graduate programs. Despite operating a total of 13 campuses and learning centers throughout Delaware and New Jersey, online programs are far and away more popular than those taught on any of the campuses. Fully 44 percent of students enrolled at WilmU take at least one class online, while just 31 percent were enrolled at the main New Castle campus.
Why it's good for online master's degrees: Approximately two-thirds of graduate students here attend part-time, which could be good news if you're returning to school after spending some time away. Those numbers suggest that at least a few of your classmates will be peers of yours, rather than fresh bachelor's graduates.
Most Affordable Online Colleges for Master’s Degree Programs
These five colleges offer online master's degree programs with the most affordable tuition costs out of all the competition.
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Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
Using the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we generated a list of colleges and universities that met the following criteria:
Have at least 1% of students attending some form of distance education
Have awarded at least one degree or certificate at the master's degree level in 2016-17
All schools are institutionally accredited
Have reported data for all 7 ranking variables listed below
We ranked the resulting 1,055 colleges on 7 criteria, using 2016-17 data from IPEDS:
Number of programs at this degree level offered via distance education
Degree prominence, based on how many of the degrees awarded in 2016-17 were at this particular degree level
Ratio of graduate students participating fully or partially in DE to Total Enrollment
Average in-state tuition for graduates
Credit offerings (Dual, Life, AP, Military)
Services (Academic/Career Counseling, Placement for Completers)
Placement for Completers
The availability of any tuition plans (Payment, Guaranteed, Prepaid, Other)