A master’s degree is an ideal way to hone your expertise and professional credentials. A master’s degree demonstrates a willingness to work hard and take risks, and most can be completed in two years or less.
Online master’s degrees are useful for those who want to expand their credentials without being tied to a classroom. Candidates can complete their master’s on their own schedule from a home office or while traveling. Online degrees are more accessible to students juggling work, family, and other circumstances.
In 2018, the number of U.S. residents 25 and older whose highest earned degree was a master’s degree reached 21 million. This makes a master’s one of the most popular degree types in the country.
Master of Arts
An MA is a focused degree in a non-science subject. An MA in history, for example, can prepare candidates to teach history or research a particular field. Other common master’s degrees include English, film studies, anthropology, and international affairs.
Master of Science
With a master of science degree, students can enter a diverse and growing array of professions, including engineering, computer science, biology, biochemistry, and medical science. An MS may also cover fields adjacent to the hard sciences, such as accounting or finance.
Master of Business Administration
Students who wish to start or manage a business often pursue a master of business administration. An MBA degree focuses on management in practice and theory. Harvard Business School launched the first MBA program in 1908.
Master of Education
With a master of education (M.Ed.), candidates can study and practice pedagogy at different levels of education. An M.Ed. can prepare students to teach K-12 education, become academic advisors, or work in community education outreach and after-school programs.
Master of Fine Arts
Usually awarded for a work of art rather than a work of research, a master of fine arts (MFA) degree allows artists to hone their craft in a concentrated program through workshops and studio courses. For example, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is renowned for producing award-winning authors through its creative writing MFA.
Master of Social Work
A master of social work (MSW) helps professional social workers set themselves apart in their field. With almost 300 accredited MSW degrees granting specialized licensure in professions like healthcare, family planning, and rehabilitation, an MSW can open many professional doors.
Why Get a Master’s Degree?
Many professions in fields like medicine and law require a master’s degree. Recent bachelor’s graduates can pursue a master’s immediately if they have a clear plan in mind, but there is no time limit on earning a master’s degree. Students undergoing career shifts or who work full time may prefer online master’s programs.
Seasoned professionals may benefit from master’s degrees as well. For example, an MFA student may pursue their degree to workshop a novel outside of their day job. Likewise, a high school teacher might earn an M.Ed. to stay current on the newest ideas in education.
Other reasons to enroll in an online master’s degree include the following:
Prospective Ph.D. students often need master’s degrees.
Certain professions require candidates to hold master’s degrees.
Professionals can expand their existing qualifications with a master’s.
Master’s students can improve their creative skills and work toward publication or artistic expertise.
Anyone can enroll in an online master’s program, and more and more master’s students are choosing distance education. As of 2018, 39.8% of graduate students were enrolled in some form of distance education.
As students continue using online coursework to complete their degrees, demand for online courses is likely to increase.
Universities can deliver online programs through several methods, offering greater flexibility to students. Synchronous classes may take place through video conferencing during regularly scheduled meeting times. Asynchronous courses do not use set login times, permitting students to complete assignments on their own schedule between work, family, and other routines.
Learners can often complete online programs at their own pace. Accelerated programs, such as Eastern Washington University’s one-year online MBA, let learners expedite their degrees. Part-time degrees may take 2-3 years to complete, granting students greater flexibility in their schedules.
For many students, a master’s degree is a necessary but expensive goal. Online programs often incur fewer costs.
Distance programs often offer the same tuition rates to in-state and out-of-state students alike. Distance learners do not have to pay to relocate to a different city or state. Likewise, students can save money by completing assignments and readings from home. Online students can maintain their day jobs while they study as well.
Are Online Master's Degrees Accepted?
Employers generally view online degrees as equal to on-campus degrees, and in most cases, it is impossible to determine whether a graduate earned their degree online or in person.
To ensure that distance learning offers the same quality as traditional education, the U.S. Department of Education updated distance education regulations in 2016, noting that over 5 million students were enrolled in some form of distance learning. At both institutional and professional levels, online master’s degrees from accredited institutions are just as regulated, valid, and useful as traditional degrees.
Online Master’s Degree Programs
The following information is based on a general program and meant to guide prospective students interested in pursuing an online master’s degree. Some factors may vary from program to program.
Choosing an Online Graduate Program
Many factors can help prospective students find the best program for their needs. These key factors include:
Online master’s degrees are structured like traditional graduate degrees. Students take core curriculum classes to supplement research, art, and/or comprehensive exams. With some minor variations, online programs mirror in-person ones.
Most online master’s degrees take two years, though some run longer. Accelerated programs typically require 1-1.5 years of study.
A majority of required credits are part of a core curriculum covering the essential material in a program. Elective credits can supplement a particular specialization or advance a broader academic interest in related subjects.
Master’s theses vary depending on program type. A thesis for an MS in psychology might be an extensive group research project, for example, while an MA in literature might entail a 50-page literary analysis.
Comprehensive exams, or comps, are a common alternative to a written thesis. These exams typically comprise extensive essays, which students must complete in a specific time frame. Comps may also entail an oral presentation or defense of a research project.
Some online master’s degrees require a certain amount of in-person participation for lab work, teaching practicums, or internships.
Accreditation for Distance Education
Schools earn regional or national accreditation when they meet a set of quality standards determined by a third-party agency. Specific programs and departments can also obtain subject-specific accreditation. Prospective students can search for accredited online master’s programs using the Distance Education Accrediting Commission’s Directory of Accredited Institutions.
Prospective online master’s students should start applying to their top schools in late fall and winter if they want to gain admission before the fall term. Some programs use rolling admissions, which allows students to apply and begin their studies at any time.
Most graduate programs request the following from applicants:
Tuition, residency, and university funding can all contribute to the cost of an online master’s degree. For example, in the 2018-2019 academic year, the average cost of a degree from a private nonprofit institution was $25,929, while degrees from public schools cost on average $19,314.
Public universities tend to charge in-state students significantly lower tuition rates. Learners can also seek funding through scholarships, assistantships, or other financial aid resources.
Higher education requires a large financial investment, so learners should assess the financial aid opportunities available to them through their schools, public or private loan programs, and other resources.
Most universities offer financial aid packages to graduate students. These may include scholarships, research fellowships, or teaching assistantships, which often provide stipends or waivers. Students can search through various scholarship options here.
Many professionals advance their careers and salaries through a master’s degree. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, statisticians with a master’s degree earned an annual median salary of $80,000 or more as of 2019. Those with a bachelor’s degree earned $40,000-$59,000.
Making up just 1.6% of the workforce, employees with master’s degrees earned a median annual salary of $76,180 as of 2019, second only to those with doctoral degrees. The pool of workers with master’s degrees is projected to grow, but the degree still helps professionals stand out in the job market. For some, a master’s degree coupled with a doctorate can lead to their dream job.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I get a master's degree online?
Yes. Universities are offering more and more online master’s degrees. These credentials are just as valuable as traditional degrees in most disciplines, including science, art, education, and business.
How long is a master's degree program online?
Most master’s programs take two years to complete. Many online master’s programs offer accelerated, one-year degrees. Most master’s programs entail 30-46 credits.
How much does it cost to get an online master's degree?
Cost varies by program, but online degrees are typically cheaper, averaging $19,314 at public institutions and $25,929 for private universities. Many graduate students receive financial aid as well.
Are online master's degree programs accredited?
Yes. Online master’s degrees earn accreditation through the same rigorous methods as other programs. The Distanced Education Accreditation Commission is a nonprofit accreditation organization focused on making sure online programs meet high education standards.
Feature Image: Cavan Images / Cavan / Getty Images
Pursuing an online master's degree gives students more control over their learning experience. Many programs run asynchronously, allowing learners to complete coursework around work and family responsibilities. Some programs offer...