Affordable Online Master’s Degree Programs

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Best Online Master’s Programs

Prospective students who require a flexible schedule while pursuing their master’s degree may consider enrolling in an online graduate program. In this highly competitive job marketplace, an online degree can set students apart and allow for greater personal, professional and financial opportunities in their chosen field. To help students find the best program that meets their individual needs, we have analyzed every online master’s program in the country and ranked the top schools based on our criteria. Explore the best online master’s programs for 2016-2017 in the list below.

Rank University Location ScoreTuition# 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$4,2209 26% 16:1 16% No Yes Yes
2 Fort Hays State University Hays, KS 99.51$3,70512 72% 17:1 41% No Yes Yes
3 University of Central Arkansas Conway, AR 99.40$5,64412 85% 17:1 41% No Yes Yes
4 Arkansas State University-Main Campus Jonesboro, AR 99.39$5,57611 65% 17:1 39% No Yes Yes
5 Wilmington University New Castle, DE 99.32$7,86216 20% 14:1 34% Yes Yes Yes
6 University of Southern Mississippi Hattiesburg, MS 99.29$6,98015 74% 17:1 50% No Yes Yes
7 Saint Leo University Saint Leo, FL 99.28$8,44221 99% 15:1 43% Yes Yes Yes
8 East Carolina University Greenville, NC 99.10$6,40731 50% 18:1 58% No Yes Yes
9 Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide Daytona Beach, FL 99.04$6,72011 14% 12:1 48% Yes Yes Yes
10 Wayland Baptist University Plainview, TX 98.98$9,93015 33% 10:1 36% Yes Yes Yes
11 University of West Alabama Livingston, AL 98.96$6,1529 47% 15:1 27% No Yes Yes
12 Delta State University Cleveland, MS 98.93$6,5628 42% 13:1 37% No Yes Yes
13 Troy University Troy, AL 98.76$7,37210 45% 15:1 35% Yes Yes Yes
14 Southern Arkansas University Main Campus Magnolia, AR 98.58$5,5447 82% 16:1 35% No Yes Yes
15 University of Nebraska at Kearney Kearney, NE 98.56$6,34710 55% 15:1 56% No Yes Yes
16 Indiana State University Terre Haute, IN 98.52$7,04017 75% 20:1 43% Yes Yes Yes
17 University of Memphis Memphis, TN 98.52$9,86715 40% 14:1 40% Yes Yes Yes
18 University of Idaho Moscow, ID 98.50$7,88218 78% 17:1 56% Yes Yes Yes
19 New Mexico State University-Main Campus Las Cruces, NM 98.48$4,8227 39% 17:1 44% No Yes Yes
20 Columbus State University Columbus, GA 98.36$6,79910 13% 17:1 34% Yes Yes Yes
21 Adams State University Alamosa, CO 98.35$6,5948 70% 15:1 25% Yes Yes Yes
22 Emporia State University Emporia, KS 98.35$7,24816 76% 18:1 42% No Yes Yes
23 University of Central Missouri Warrensburg, MO 98.30$7,32614 60% 18:1 49% Yes Yes Yes
24 The University of Texas at Tyler Tyler, TX 98.30$6,14213 39% 21:1 41% Yes Yes Yes
25 Western Carolina University Cullowhee, NC 98.28$6,7349 67% 16:1 48% Yes Yes Yes
26 University of Louisiana at Monroe Monroe, LA 98.16$7,27617 56% 21:1 37% No Yes Yes
27 Northern Arizona University Flagstaff, AZ 98.15$8,63224 66% 18:1 49% No Yes Yes
28 Missouri State University-Springfield Springfield, MO 98.07$5,38810 51% 20:1 55% No Yes Yes
29 Concordia University-Saint Paul Saint Paul, MN 98.05$8,55014 85% 15:1 47% Yes Yes Yes
30 Oklahoma State University-Main Campus Stillwater, OK 98.05$6,90116 73% 20:1 62% Yes Yes Yes
31 Northwestern State University of Louisiana Natchitoches, LA 98.04$7,47015 48% 20:1 36% Yes Yes Yes
32 Southeastern Oklahoma State University Durant, OK 98.03$4,1986 59% 17:1 30% No Yes Yes
33 Ball State University Muncie, IN 98.01$8,76014 47% 15:1 57% No Yes Yes
34 Graceland University-Lamoni Lamoni, IA 97.93$7,7978 10% 13:1 50% Yes Yes Yes
35 Brenau University Gainesville, GA 97.89$8,99610 98% 11:1 45% Yes Yes Yes
36 North Carolina Central University Durham, NC 97.86$6,3296 81% 15:1 43% Yes Yes Yes
37 University of North Carolina at Greensboro Greensboro, NC 97.76$7,16310 49% 17:1 54% No Yes Yes
38 Liberty University Lynchburg, VA 97.72$9,71023 78% 18:1 46% Yes Yes Yes
39 Indiana Wesleyan University Marion, IN 97.68$10,23522 50% 16:1 70% Yes Yes Yes
40 Western Kentucky University Bowling Green, KY 97.68$10,30023 37% 18:1 50% No Yes Yes
41 North Carolina State University at Raleigh Raleigh, NC 97.66$9,89233 50% 16:1 71% No Yes Yes
42 University of Arkansas Fayetteville, AR 97.65$7,82216 38% 19:1 60% No Yes Yes
43 Chadron State College Chadron, NE 97.65$4,1858 66% 21:1 42% Yes Yes Yes
44 Webster University Saint Louis, MO 97.61$11,97020 94% 13:1 64% Yes Yes Yes
45 Purdue University-Main Campus West Lafayette, IN 97.60$10,00213 47% 12:1 70% No Yes Yes
46 University of Colorado Denver Denver, CO 97.59$7,81612 48% 16:1 45% No Yes Yes
47 University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Brownsville, TX 97.59$4,4628 7% 24:1 23% Yes Yes Yes
48 University of Arkansas at Little Rock Little Rock, AR 97.47$7,2036 50% 13:1 19% No Yes Yes
49 University of Alabama at Birmingham Birmingham, AL 97.43$7,09010 66% 18:1 48% Yes Yes Yes
50 University of North Dakota Grand Forks, ND 97.42$8,22523 30% 19:1 52% No Yes Yes

Guide to Online Master’s Programs

Finding a great online master’s degree program can be a tough task. However, the right data, information and tools can make the process a whole lot easier. The following page breaks down online master’s programs in three helpful ways. First, it provides easy access to more detailed information about online degrees by subject. Potential students can find expert information and advice about online learning in accounting, education, marketing and more. Second, the Top 20 Colleges for Online Master’s Programs highlights specific schools that excel at distance learning at the graduate level. Who stands out when it comes to online graduate programs and why? And finally, the online master’s guide offers an in-depth look at this academic track from start to finish, aided by former online master’s instructor and administrator, Greg Beatty, PhD. Find colleges and learn more today.

A Guide to Online Master’s Programs

Meet the Expert

Greg Beatty Read More

Online master’s degree programs give students a more convenient way to earn a graduate-level credential. Colleges and universities across the country offer self-paced, real-time, hybrid/blended and a host of other flexible opportunities for anyone seeking an advanced degree. For those who already know they want to learn online, the quick search tool makes it easy to find quality online master’s programs in just about any subject. And the in-depth guide to online master’s degrees explores the ins and outs of distance learning at the graduate level, from searching for programs and submitting applications to graduation and career advancement. Get the inside scoop on the timelines, tools and tech that make the online master’s a top choice for students looking to get ahead.

When Online Master’s Programs Make Sense

There are a number of reasons one might pursue a master’s degree. Some employers require them — for example, Burning Glass Technologies estimated in 2012 that 23% of jobs posted asked for a master’s. In other cases, students earn them in hopes of cementing a higher salary, increased job security and/or improving advancement potential. Whatever the case, master’s degrees can be a valuable investment in one’s future.

Yet earning a master’s takes time — two years or more of part- or full-time coursework while likely working and balancing personal commitments. More and more students today are turning to online master’s programs to capitalize on the flexibility they offer, which helps them earn an advanced degree while not sacrificing a steady job or family time in the process. Let’s take a look at three primary reasons people earn a master’s online.

New Career while Working

Working professionals make up a substantial portion of online master’s seekers. They hold down a full-time or near full-time job but may not view that job as a long-term career. For example, someone with a bachelor’s degree in finance and working as a junior analyst may want to transition to a career in accounting. An online master’s program would allow the person to work toward their degree while keeping their regular analyst hours.

Same Field, New Position

Some students apply to online master’s programs not because their chosen fields demand it, but because they want to move up the ladder faster, or land a new, better position in the same field, or even with the same company. This may be particularly true with highly competitive industries or managerial positions. Graduate education also gives professionals an opportunity to acquire new, specialized skills designed for advancement. Again, the online master’s can be earned while working, meaning you don’t skip a beat with your current company.

A Higher Hurdle to Climb

In some fields, a master’s degree is a baseline requirement for even entry-level work, especially in managerial or highly technical positions. In these cases, the credential certifies that applicants have certain skills and knowledge, even if they have very little experience. Other students earn an online master’s degree voluntary rather than out of necessity, showing potential employers they’re committed to long-term success.

How Online Master’s Programs Work

Precisely how online master’s degrees work depends very much on the program or institution. Some programs focus mostly on self-paced or “asynchronous” programs, meaning students can access recorded lectures and other materials when convenient, without following a set class schedule. Real-time, or synchronous classes, on the other hand, require students to stream live lectures and coordinate with fellow students and professors online at pre-set times. Many programs have highly advanced anti-cheating measures such as webcams or keystroke verification software; others require students to complete exams on campus or at another designated center with proctors. It is important to research a course’s technical requirements — including computer, webcam or software requirements — before enrolling. Some programs will actually supply or lend students all required devices or software.

When Face-to-Face Matters

Although many online master’s programs have solid processes and platforms for peer-to-peer and peer-to-professor communication, sometimes face-to-face interaction is a must. Many online MBA programs, for example, require students to visit campus at the start of the semester to forge relationships with their “pods” or team members and meet with instructors and administrators. This type of travel/communication helps keep people connected and get everything moving in the right direction.

Hands-on Programs

Earning a master’s online in a subject like English makes perfect sense. It’s a very academic major that lends itself to submission and discussion of papers, exam results and other elements. Yet for the more tactile disciplines, like those in health care and technology, there needs to be a significant amount of hands-on training. Teaching may be the most ready example. For anyone working toward an online master’s in teaching or education, interaction with students is a necessity. Part of effective teaching is working with a student in-person to gauge acquisition of (or gaps in) knowledge and skills. To bridge this gap, quality online programs establish relationships with school districts to set up classroom visits for its grad students.

Online Master’s Timeline

Deciding to apply to a program is only the first step toward earning a master’s degree online — the next is figuring out how these programs work (and how long they take to complete). The section below provides a start-to-finish look at the process of earning an online master’s. Understanding the full spectrum and its components is a vital part of finding the right graduate opportunity for you.

Application and Admission

Applying to any degree program may seem daunting, and online master’s degree programs are no exception. The key is to know what to expect, beginning with application deadlines and requirements. These vary from one school — and even department — to the next, so it pays to research and make careful note of each and every detail. Keep in mind that online master’s degree admissions can be more competitive than for undergraduate programs, so requirements tend to be steeper. Many colleges require applicants to submit standardized test scores, like the GRE or GMAT. They may also require essays and letters of recommendation in addition to transcripts. The following is an outline of the steps one might take when applying for admissions:

  • Take online learning assessment (through a college or independently) to see if an online master’s is right for you. If so…
  • Research and note application and other urgent deadlines
  • Download or bookmark applications, whether submitted via mail or online
  • Become acquainted with financial aid and student lending deadlines, if applicable
  • Compile a list of admissions criteria and deadlines for each. Transcripts, test scores and recommendations may have submission deadlines that differ from that of the initial application.
  • Contact undergraduate universities and request copies of official transcripts to be sent directly to graduate institutions.
  • Contact standardized testing firms to request scores be forwarded
  • Touch base with employers, professors and anyone else from whom you’d like a letter of recommendation.
  • Complete and submit admission essays, if applicable
  • Complete and submit final application by deadline
  • Complete and submit financial aid paperwork by deadline, if applicable

Many schools maintain a list of application steps and requirements on their websites. If not, an admissions counselor can provide specific direction. Now let’s look at what one can expect once admitted to a program. Note that most online master’s degree programs can be completed in about two years of full-time study. Some programs may take a bit more or less time, and students who do not take a full load of classes will need more time to complete their degrees.

Year 1

  • The first year of an online master’s program includes some basic or general coursework, but keep in mind that classes tend to be more specialized than they were in undergraduate programs: Most, if not all, courses will relate directly to one’s field of study. In other words, the general education courses typically required in bachelor’s degree programs are notably absent from graduate-level programs. Students enrolled in an online master’s degree program with specialty options (think: an MBA with an emphasis on finance or technology) may be required to choose their concentration and tailor their courses toward it right from the start; other programs allow students to delay specialization until the second year. Admissions or academic counselors can help students understand what classes need to be completed, and when.

Year 2

  • Over the course of this year, courses usually become more advanced and specialized. Many programs also require students to complete special projects, theses or comprehensive exams during this year. Students’ career and education goals may also drive course selection during year two: students preparing to go directly into the workforce may make different choices than those who intend to apply to doctorate programs. Once again, academic counselors can help figure out which courses are required to graduate, and when they tend to be offered.

Online Learning Q&A

Online master’s degree programs are not new, but for many students, they remain uncharted territory. Here are some of the most common questions students have about web-based learning.

How do online master’s degrees differ from online undergraduate degrees?

Programs can and do vary, but generally speaking, online graduate-level coursework translates just as well to the web-based environment as undergraduate coursework did. Note, however, that many master’s degree programs require students to complete theses that necessitate teacher mentorship, or special group projects. Students will need to coordinate with professors and peers to ensure they get the support they need. Some programs may also allow students to coordinate with local employers when completing certain projects. Programs requiring comprehensive examinations may require students to complete them on-campus or at an approved local center with proctors on staff.

Can I really study anything online?

Some disciplines translate to an online learning environment better than others, but thanks to technological advancements like 3D or holographic imaging, the share of courses that have to be completed in the classroom is shrinking. For heavily hands-on subjects, like nursing, students can often take some courses online and complete others on campus or through a local teaching hospital. The same applies to any course that has a lab component.

Are online master’s degree programs as credible as classroom-based programs?

In 2010, CareerBuilder conducted a survey in which 83 percent of executives said they believe an online degree is just as credible as one earned through a traditional campus-based program. As online programs have become even more familiar and mainstream, that share has likely increased. Note that in many cases, employers cannot even tell whether a candidate attended college online or on campus, especially with schools offering both modes of study.

Are online master’s degree programs easier than traditional programs?

Not necessarily. Online classes may be more convenient that classroom-based classes, but as PsychCentral once noted, they can be every bit as challenging, especially with difficult subjects. Also keep in mind that online programs can also require more organization and self-discipline than traditional coursework, particularly in student-guided and asynchronous programs where students are responsible for completing their work on schedule

Accreditation and the Online Master’s

For some online master’s programs, quality may be implied. For example, earning an MBA online from a college such as Stanford or the University of Texas at Austin means getting an education with the same rigor as their campus-based programs. But even with larger more established schools and programs, it’s important to research accreditation. In essence, accreditation indicates that a government-endorsed higher education agency has fully vetted the college and its programs for academic rigor, faculty experience and resources. Regional accreditation remains the gold standard today, although some colleges, universities and specialty programs may have either national or programmatic accreditation, both of which may be sufficient depending on the circumstance. For a detailed rundown of accreditation, including full profiles of the processes and the players, visit our complete guide to college accreditation.

Ten Most Popular Online Master’s Degrees

It’s no surprise that the top ten most-popular master’s degree programs are in fields that match the creation and rise of job specializations in the economy. While not all of these popular master’s programs guarantee high-paying jobs for graduates, they certainly reflect student interest in careers with high earnings potential in growing sectors such as business, education and healthcare. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that almost half of the 754,200 master’s degrees conferred in 2012 were in either business (25 percent) or education (24 percent). The remaining top degrees were, in order, healthcare-related, social services/public administration and engineering.

Master’s degree students tend to have work experience and, therefore, opt for graduate degrees that open doors to management roles or pathways into a new profession entirely. Whether they’re following their passion, the money or happily engaged in both, many students complete these popular degrees entirely online. Online programs dovetail neatly with working students’ obligations, providing opportunities to combine their advanced learning with real world business challenges.

Master’s in Business Administration (MBA)

MBA students, reports, accounted for one-fourth of all graduate candidates in 2012, marking the first time since 1971 that a master’s degree in education wasn’t on top. Degree types include one-year online accelerated MBAs, part-time programs, two-year online and traditional MBA programs and concentrated executive MBAs for professional leaders. Some online MBA programs may allow candidates to forgo the GMAT requirement if they have substantial work experience in management or a related business field. Online MBA programs from top universities include:


Despite being knocked off the top spot by business administration, education remains by far one of the nation’s most popular master’s degree programs. Admissions to some programs may be highly competitive and a great number of applicants are experienced educators. The most-commonly sought credentials are the Master of Education (M.Ed.), M.Ed./Credential and Master of Arts in Education (M.A.). Students can also opt to focus their skills by pursuing specializations such as education administration and management, special education, education counseling and post-secondary education administration. Three top online education and teaching degrees include:

Master of Information Science (MIS)

With a steady advancement of technology – particularly in the wireless space – comes a rising call for IT professionals to lead organizations in cloud network security, mobile communications and technology assessment. Online master’s degrees in information systems management are popular advanced-degree options for computer professionals seeking management credentials to lead enterprise-wide technology initiatives. The Master’s of Information Science (MIS) degree is an in-demand credential for leaders across all sectors including business, education, technology, healthcare and public and governmental organizations. Graduates of a MIS degree can go on to pursue jobs such as chief information officer (CIO), chief technology officer (CTO), IT manager or IT director of security. Some of today’s best online MIS programs include the following:

Homeland Security and Law Enforcement

The combined fields of homeland security, law enforcement and fire science had the single-greatest percentage increase in the number of awarded master’s degrees during the 2001-2010 decade. The NCES reported a 186 percent spike in degrees in this sector of public service and security. Regular and predictable promotions and increased wages for these careers, along with job security and new hiring trends in national law enforcement organizations, account for the rise in popularity. There are accredited online programs leading to master’s degrees in fire science, criminal justice and homeland security. Typically degrees are designated as a master’s of science (MS) in areas such as professional studies, fire science, criminal justice and law enforcement.

Physician Assisting

According to Forbes, it could be the median annual wage of $97,000 and a projected 38 percent increase in job openings (2012-2022) that lie behind the popularity of a master’s of science degree in physician assistant studies. Physician assistants are rigorously trained, licensed and can often perform many of the duties commonly handled by a doctor. They take jobs in physicians’ offices, hospitals, outpatient care centers and clinics. Accredited online master’s degrees in physician assisting programs usually take two years to complete. Examples of top degree programs include:

Electrical Engineering (EE)

Forbes ranks the master’s degree in electrical engineering among the top-three degrees for finding jobs. Electrical engineers can earn a median mid-career annual wage of $121,000. The degree’s popularity, however, may be directly related to a wide range of potential employers in high-growth sectors such as oil and gas energy, semiconductor design and manufacturing and consulting. Three top online master’s in electrical engineering include:

Health Care Administration

The BLS estimates that 15.6 million new jobs will be added in the healthcare sector during the 2012-2022 decade. With all the new hires, it’s not surprising that jobs for medical and healthcare service managers are anticipated to increase by 23 percent during the same decade. The popularity of traditional and online master’s degree programs in healthcare administration or MBA degrees with a concentration in the healthcare sector reflects the allure of an interdisciplinary education with widespread workplace options. Healthcare professionals can return to college to add a management degree or management professionals can concentrate graduate studies in healthcare. Graduates may qualify for roles in leading a single clinical department or managing a hospital, clinic, or medical group. Below are three popular online master’s programs in health care administration:

Civil Engineering

A bachelor’s degree in civil engineering will suffice if students want to work as an engineer and hold a license. However, the BLS now reports that one in five civil engineers has gone on to complete a master’s degree to qualify for management roles. Popular graduate programs include a MS degree in civil engineering or engineering mechanics and the master’s degree in engineering management (MEM or MsEM). Depending on the traditional or online degree program, students can pursue management and core strategic knowledge similar to that of an MBA curriculum, with a focus on engineering. Some top online master’s degree programs in civil engineering include:


While earnings may not be the attribute behind the popularity of counseling psychology degrees, this master’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for those interested in becoming a psychology professional. Typical degrees in the field include Master’s of Arts (M.A.) or Master’s of Science (M.S.) in Counseling and Master’s in Counseling Psychology. Due to a hefty 19 percent projected increase in jobs for counselors and social workers (2012-2022), people drawn to the mental health professions should enjoy ample career opportunities. Online programs in counseling or social work are common and offer options to students who are already working in a public service or mental health environment to bolster their credentials. Below is a glance at three popular online master’s degrees in psychology:


Forbes ranks a Master’s Degree in Physics the 6th most-powerful degree for landing a career. Graduates take jobs with diverse titles such as gravity researcher, radar project manager, science advisor, games designer, science journalist, structural engineer, Alzheimer researcher, solar energy physicist, astrophysicist, nuclear engineer, biophysicist, physics teacher and medical physicist. Many M.S. in Physics degree programs lead directly into Ph.D. programs. Master’s degrees often must be completed in four years, with a seven-year time frame to complete the Ph.D.

The Online Master’s Payoff

Though master’s degrees do not always correlate with higher earnings, master’s degree holders do tend to earn more over the course of their careers than colleagues with less education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, master’s degree holders earned a median weekly salary of $1,329; bachelor’s degree holders earned $1,108 while those with associate degrees earned $777. Workers with a high school diploma alone earned $651 a week. The BLS reports that employment rates tend to improve with education, too: master’s degree holders faced a 3.4 percent unemployment rate in 2013, nearly half the 6.1 percent average for all workers nationally. Professionals working in fields that do not require master’s degrees can ask their managers or human resources representatives how investing in a degree could impact their bottom line. Prospective students can also consult online salary databases to learn how earnings within specific roles and regions shift with education.