Learners pursue online master's degrees for a variety of reasons. Some need a master's to qualify for doctoral programs, while others enter master's programs to refine their skill set. Working professionals often earn a master's degree to satisfy licensure or certification requirements.
Online master's programs help learners expand their expertise and broaden their career prospects, and a graduate degree often increases earning power. Online master's programs offer several advantages for working professionals. Distance learning provides scheduling flexibility and allows learners to continue working full time while studying.
This guide explores components of a typical online master's degree. The following sections include a ranking of programs, list common benefits of studying online, and discuss the application process. This guide also outlines some financial considerations for students and common continuing education opportunities for graduates.
The ranking below includes 50 of the best online master's programs available. Prospective learners can use this list to begin researching prospective schools. The ranking considers factors including tuition rates, program offerings, financial aid opportunities, and student-to-faculty ratios.
To find the best colleges of 2016-17 for earning an online master’s degree, our researchers and higher education experts collected and analyzed data from every accredited postsecondary institution in the United States. The goal? To see which colleges offered the most notable balances of academic rigor, program availability, student support and affordability for online learning. The specific criteria and scoring metrics for the ranking are as follows:
*PBV: is a proprietary metric that compares the cost of a program to the cost of other programs with the same (or a similar) qualitative score. It also compares the qualitative score of the program to the score of other programs with the same (or similar) cost. In short, the PBV calculation denotes the overall value – or "bang for your buck" – of an online degree.-
|Rank||University||Location||Score||Annual Tuition||# of Online Programs||Financial Aid %||Student-Teacher Ratio||Grad Rate||Credit for Experience||Placement Services||Counseling Services||University Information|
|1||Western New Mexico University||Silver City, NM||99.79||$4,220||9||26%||16:1||16%||No||Yes||Yes|
|2||Fort Hays State University||Hays, KS||99.51||$3,705||12||72%||17:1||41%||No||Yes||Yes|
|3||University of Central Arkansas||Conway, AR||99.40||$5,644||12||85%||17:1||41%||No||Yes||Yes|
|4||Arkansas State University-Main Campus||Jonesboro, AR||99.39||$5,576||11||65%||17:1||39%||No||Yes||Yes|
|5||Wilmington University||New Castle, DE||99.32||$7,862||16||20%||14:1||34%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|6||University of Southern Mississippi||Hattiesburg, MS||99.29||$6,980||15||74%||17:1||50%||No||Yes||Yes|
|7||Saint Leo University||Saint Leo, FL||99.28||$8,442||21||99%||15:1||43%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|8||East Carolina University||Greenville, NC||99.10||$6,407||31||50%||18:1||58%||No||Yes||Yes|
|9||Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide||Daytona Beach, FL||99.04||$6,720||11||14%||12:1||48%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|10||Wayland Baptist University||Plainview, TX||98.98||$9,930||15||33%||10:1||36%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|11||University of West Alabama||Livingston, AL||98.96||$6,152||9||47%||15:1||27%||No||Yes||Yes|
|12||Delta State University||Cleveland, MS||98.93||$6,562||8||42%||13:1||37%||No||Yes||Yes|
|13||Troy University||Troy, AL||98.76||$7,372||10||45%||15:1||35%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|14||Southern Arkansas University Main Campus||Magnolia, AR||98.58||$5,544||7||82%||16:1||35%||No||Yes||Yes|
|15||University of Nebraska at Kearney||Kearney, NE||98.56||$6,347||10||55%||15:1||56%||No||Yes||Yes|
|16||Indiana State University||Terre Haute, IN||98.52||$7,040||17||75%||20:1||43%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|17||University of Memphis||Memphis, TN||98.52||$9,867||15||40%||14:1||40%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|18||University of Idaho||Moscow, ID||98.50||$7,882||18||78%||17:1||56%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|19||New Mexico State University-Main Campus||Las Cruces, NM||98.48||$4,822||7||39%||17:1||44%||No||Yes||Yes|
|20||Columbus State University||Columbus, GA||98.36||$6,799||10||13%||17:1||34%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|21||Adams State University||Alamosa, CO||98.35||$6,594||8||70%||15:1||25%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|22||Emporia State University||Emporia, KS||98.35||$7,248||16||76%||18:1||42%||No||Yes||Yes|
|23||University of Central Missouri||Warrensburg, MO||98.30||$7,326||14||60%||18:1||49%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|24||The University of Texas at Tyler||Tyler, TX||98.30||$6,142||13||39%||21:1||41%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|25||Western Carolina University||Cullowhee, NC||98.28||$6,734||9||67%||16:1||48%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|26||University of Louisiana at Monroe||Monroe, LA||98.16||$7,276||17||56%||21:1||37%||No||Yes||Yes|
|27||Northern Arizona University||Flagstaff, AZ||98.15||$8,632||24||66%||18:1||49%||No||Yes||Yes|
|28||Missouri State University-Springfield||Springfield, MO||98.07||$5,388||10||51%||20:1||55%||No||Yes||Yes|
|29||Concordia University-Saint Paul||Saint Paul, MN||98.05||$8,550||14||85%||15:1||47%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|30||Oklahoma State University-Main Campus||Stillwater, OK||98.05||$6,901||16||73%||20:1||62%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|31||Northwestern State University of Louisiana||Natchitoches, LA||98.04||$7,470||15||48%||20:1||36%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|32||Southeastern Oklahoma State University||Durant, OK||98.03||$4,198||6||59%||17:1||30%||No||Yes||Yes|
|33||Ball State University||Muncie, IN||98.01||$8,760||14||47%||15:1||57%||No||Yes||Yes|
|34||Graceland University-Lamoni||Lamoni, IA||97.93||$7,797||8||10%||13:1||50%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|35||Brenau University||Gainesville, GA||97.89||$8,996||10||98%||11:1||45%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|36||North Carolina Central University||Durham, NC||97.86||$6,329||6||81%||15:1||43%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|37||University of North Carolina at Greensboro||Greensboro, NC||97.76||$7,163||10||49%||17:1||54%||No||Yes||Yes|
|38||Liberty University||Lynchburg, VA||97.72||$9,710||23||78%||18:1||46%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|39||Indiana Wesleyan University||Marion, IN||97.68||$10,235||22||50%||16:1||70%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|40||Western Kentucky University||Bowling Green, KY||97.68||$10,300||23||37%||18:1||50%||No||Yes||Yes|
|41||North Carolina State University at Raleigh||Raleigh, NC||97.66||$9,892||33||50%||16:1||71%||No||Yes||Yes|
|42||University of Arkansas||Fayetteville, AR||97.65||$7,822||16||38%||19:1||60%||No||Yes||Yes|
|43||Chadron State College||Chadron, NE||97.65||$4,185||8||66%||21:1||42%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|44||Webster University||Saint Louis, MO||97.61||$11,970||20||94%||13:1||64%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|45||Purdue University-Main Campus||West Lafayette, IN||97.60||$10,002||13||47%||12:1||70%||No||Yes||Yes|
|46||University of Colorado Denver||Denver, CO||97.59||$7,816||12||48%||16:1||45%||No||Yes||Yes|
|47||University of Texas Rio Grande Valley||Brownsville, TX||97.59||$4,462||8||7%||24:1||23%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|48||University of Arkansas at Little Rock||Little Rock, AR||97.47||$7,203||6||50%||13:1||19%||No||Yes||Yes|
|49||University of Alabama at Birmingham||Birmingham, AL||97.43||$7,090||10||66%||18:1||48%||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|50||University of North Dakota||Grand Forks, ND||97.42||$8,225||23||30%||19:1||52%||No||Yes||Yes|
|Associate Degree||Bachelor's Degree||Master's Degree|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Below are some common reasons for students to pursue an online master's degree. Distance learning often provides additional benefits, such as more affordable tuition rates. Many schools charge all online learners the same tuition rates, regardless of residency.
Online master's programs tend to be more accessible than on-campus options. Online learning reduces barriers associated with geographic location. Distance learning programs allow degree-seekers to study from anywhere, and many programs require no campus visits. Learners can advance their education through their ideal program without considering long commutes or an increased cost of living.
Most online master's programs offer high levels of convenience and scheduling flexibility. Designed with motivated and disciplined individuals in mind, online master's programs generally encourage self-paced study. Distance learning is ideal for busy learners and working professionals who need to balance education with other obligations. Degree-seekers can take courses that fit into their schedule and can typically access class materials and complete assignments at their convenience.
Online master's degree programs often attract learners from diverse backgrounds. Many programs include students of various ages, nationalities, and vocational aspirations. Studying in this type of environment can help learners develop their social and interpersonal skills to prepare for success in the workforce.
|Business||Master's programs in business provide specialization options and can help professionals increase their earning potential. Master's degree-holders in the field often qualify for more advanced positions. For example, certified public accountants need a master's degree.|
|Education||Educators often pursue a master's degree to teach specific types of learners. For example, teachers who want to work with students who have disabilities typically need a master's degree in special education. Additionally, administrative positions, such as school principal or superintendent, usually require at least a master's.|
|Health Professions and Related Programs||The highest-paid nurses usually hold a master's degree in a specific type of medicine. Additionally, positions in healthcare administration and other business-focused aspects of the healthcare industry often require a master's degree.|
|Engineering||Engineers can increase their earning potential and specialize their career by pursuing a master's degree. Completing a master's program is also a stepping stone to earning a doctoral degree. Engineering professionals can also specialize by obtaining certifications, many of which require candidates to hold at least a master's degree.|
|Computer and Information Sciences||This competitive and in-demand field offers above-average salary potential. Some computer and information science professionals, such as computer and information research scientists, need a master's degree. While other positions require only a bachelor's degree, candidates with a master's are often more competitive in the job market.|
Most learners complete their online master's degree in 1-3 years. Degree completion time depends on factors including enrollment status, employment, and field of study. This section outlines the typical process of earning a master's degree online.
Preparation for master's studies begins well before students complete the application. Many schools set GPA requirements, so undergraduate students who plan to continue their education should work diligently to maintain a good GPA. Some graduate schools also require applicants to submit scores from entrance exams, such as the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). Degree-seekers can study and take practice tests before sitting for the GRE.
Most online master's degree programs have similar application processes. Applicants must typically hold a relevant bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. Students must generally submit official transcripts and 1-3 reference letters from professors and academic advisors. Many programs also require a written statement outlining the applicant's professional and educational goals. Depending on the field of study, applicants may need to submit an academic writing sample.
Because master's programs do not typically include general education requirements, learners focus on their field of study beginning in the first year of their graduate program. Master's students should have a bachelor's degree, work experience in the field, or both. Graduate-level learners also need a solid understanding of foundational concepts in their field.
Students in some master's programs choose a specialization area during their first year, although most programs do not emphasize specialization coursework until the second year.
The second year of a master's program features high-level courses that cover specific field topics. Students usually complete a capstone project or thesis at the end of their second year. Many master's students begin their job search during the second year of their program. Learners often spend significant time networking and applying for positions.
Students can also continue to doctoral studies after earning their master's. These learners may research and apply to doctoral programs during the second year of their master's program. Master's degree-holders can also enter the workforce and gain professional experience before pursuing a doctorate.
In many cases, earning an online master's degree can cost less than pursuing a degree on campus. This section compares online education to on-campus learning, exploring factors including cost and scheduling options. Each of these elements varies by school and major, so prospective students should contact their institution for details.
Online master's programs do not typically require learners to relocate to campus, which allows distance students to save on housing costs. Off-campus housing options are often more affordable than on-campus dorms. Additionally, students can choose to live with their family or in an area with a lower cost of living.
The cost of fees varies widely by institution. Many schools charge technology fees, administrative and wellness fees, and library fees. These fees may be assessed for each course or once per semester. Although distance learners may not be required to pay fees associated with campus services, many schools charge fees specific to online students.
Online master's programs tend to have few travel costs. Often, all course instruction takes place online, eliminating the need to commute to campus. However, some programs require degree-seekers to attend orientation meetings or intensive sessions in person.
Tuition rates often depend on the learner's state residency status. In-state tuition rates are generally much lower than rates for out-of-state students. Some schools charge all online learners the same flat tuition rate, regardless of residency, so students should contact their prospective institution for tuition details.
Learners pursuing a master's degree online must often upgrade their computer and internet to comply with technical requirements of the learning management system. These costs vary based on the learner's school, residential location, and personal preference.
The ability to maintain full-time employment while studying is a distinct advantage of earning an online master's degree. Online programs typically offer flexible scheduling options, allowing degree-seekers to work and develop their professional status while completing the program at a reasonable pace.
Students pursuing an online master's degree can apply for the same financial aid opportunities as on-campus learners. Students can begin by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to determine their eligibility for federal aid.
Learners can also apply for scholarships, grants, and loans from businesses and professional organizations. A student's funding options depend on their school, program, and demonstrated need. Learners can also consider work-study programs and fellowships, and they can take out loans to cover remaining costs. The sections below explore a few funding options for students pursuing a master's degree online.
Many businesses, nonprofit organizations, and professional associations offer scholarships for learners enrolled in online master's programs. These scholarships may be available based on organizational affiliation and area of study. Also, many schools provide departmental scholarships to qualifying master's students.
The federal government and state governments offer grants to eligible learners. Grants do not require repayment, and applicants must typically demonstrate financial need. Students can submit the FAFSA form to automatically apply for federal grants. Learners can also research grants available from private organizations and their institution.
Through work-study placements, learners receive income in exchange for part-time employment. Students may work on campus or off campus, and placements sometimes correlate with students' professional goals. Learners in work-study positions often perform clerical, administrative, or research tasks for the institution. Work-study opportunities vary by school, level of education, and field of study.
Federal and private loans help learners cover tuition costs and expenses. These loans accrue interest over time and require repayment. The federal government offers student loans with lower interest rates than many private options.
Many schools and professional organizations offer fellowships. These opportunities typically provide learners with a stipend, and many fellowships involve a service component. Fellows may perform lab work, conduct research, or teach classes.
After earning an online master's degree, graduates can pursue further education or professional development. Obtaining credentials beyond a master's can facilitate career advancement and increase earning potential.
Master's degree-holders can continue into a doctoral program, obtain licensure, or pursue certification. This section explores a few continuing education opportunities for graduates with an online master's degree.
Most doctoral programs require applicants to hold a relevant master's degree from an accredited institution. The highest level of formal education, a doctorate qualifies learners for expert-level teaching and research in their field. Learners who intend to earn a doctorate often pursue an online master's degree satisfy prerequisites and hone their skills.
Many careers that require a master's degree also require professional licensure. For example, teachers and rehabilitation counselors must hold a state license. Many licenses require candidates to hold a master's degree and to have professional experience.
Professional certification demonstrates that an individual has skills beyond those gained during formal academic education. While certifications cannot replace a degree, these credentials often broaden career prospects. Professionals in fields such as engineering, telecommunications, and marketing often pursue certifications to demonstrate expertise in their specialization area.
When researching schools, learners should consider their personal preferences and goals. The ideal program for one student may not be right for another. The following list ranks schools based on factors including affordability and number of available programs. Learners can use this list as a starting point when researching academic options that fit their personal and professional goals.