Affordable Online Master's Degrees

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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 50 Best Online Master's Degrees

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.

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Methodology

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:

  • Accredited, 4-year public or private not-for-profit institution
  • Must offer at least 3 online master’s degree programs
  • Annual in-state tuition & fees below $25,000
  • In-state tuition & fees for graduate students
  • Count of online master’s degree programs available
  • Student-to-faculty ratio
  • Availability of academic/career counseling services
  • Availability of job placement services
  • 3-year loan default rate
  • AC Online Peer-Based Value (PBV)*

*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
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Why Should I Earn a Master's Degree Online?

Median Weekly Earnings by Education

Associate Degree Bachelor's Degree Master's Degree
$836 $1,173 $1,401

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.

Accessibility

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.

Flexibility

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.

Diversity

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.

What Are the Most Popular Master's Degrees to Earn?

Major Description
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.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

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How Long Does It Take to Earn a Master's Degree Online?

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.

Application Process

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.

Year One

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.

Year Two

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.

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Are Online Master's Degrees Cheaper?

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.

Housing Costs

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.

School Fees

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.

Travel Costs

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 Differences

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.

Computer and Internet Costs

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.

Flexibility to Work Full Time

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.

Can You Get Financial Aid for Online Master's Programs?

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.

Types of Financial Aid Available for Online Students

Scholarships

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.

Grants

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.

Work-Study

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.

Loans

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.

Fellowships

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.

Continuing Education Opportunities

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.

Doctoral Degrees

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.

Professional Licensure

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

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.

How Can I Find the Best Online Master's Programs?

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.