A master’s degree is earned through completion of a graduate program beyond a bachelor’s degree. Through work to earn a master’s degree, students gain expertise in an academic discipline through intensive coursework and the preparation of a culminating project or thesis. Master’s degrees are awarded in most disciplines and at a variety of institutions, including public, private and online schools. Those pursuing a master’s degree should have strong commitment, a specific academic direction they wish to pursue for their degree, and an understanding of how the degree will benefit their future.
Online higher education programs have been increasing in popularity, particularly among working professionals. As a result, many traditional schools have branched out into online education to meet the increasing student demand for the accessibility, flexibility, and affordability of accredited online master’s degree programs.
Attending graduate school is a major investment of time and money, so choosing the right program is critical, and identifying the online master’s programs that fit your academic and professional needs requires planning and research.
Best Online Master’s Degree Programs of 2016
To rank the Best Online Master’s Degree Programs of 2016, we first researched every school in our directory and singled out the ones offering online graduate programs. We then graded each school and program using the same methodology that we used to determine the Best Accredited Online Colleges and Universities. That methodology consisted of 14 separate data points grouped into four weighted sections:
- Institutional Characteristics
- Quality of Accreditation
- Diversity of Online Programs
- Institutional Resources
- Affordability and Student Debt
- Tuition and Debt
- Student Loan Default Rate
- College Financial Aid
- Percentage Change Across Three Years
- Enrollment, Graduation, and Retention Rates
- Distance Education Enrollment Rates
- Graduation Rates
- Retention Rates
- Student and Institutional Success
- Salaries of Graduates
- Student and Alumni Awards
- Other Institutional Rankings
- Strength of Faculty
We averaged the grades from each category to determine a program’s overall score. We then ranked each according to that final grade. For more information, you can read a full explanation of our methodology here.
Think carefully about the following points before making your decision.
Options for Postgraduate Study
Master’s degrees fall into two categories: academic or professional. A professional or terminal degree prepares you for entrance into a specific type of job. These types of degrees are called terminal because the implication is that you don’t need further education after attaining this degree. Professional degrees can usually be identified by the initials that denote their area of specialty, such as:
- Master’s of Business Administration (MBA)
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
- Juris Doctorate (JD)
- Master of Education (MEd)
- Master of Public Administration (MPA)
If your career goals are less defined, choose a broad academic degree such as a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS), or think about non-degree options for postgraduate study like seminars, internships, practicums and graduate certificates, which will add to your skillset at a lower investment of time and money.
As you research postgraduate options, consider the following:
- Will the pursuit of an online degree realistically advance my current career?
- If you wish to change careers, is a graduate degree a requirement in the field you plan to pursue?
- Are there other affordable and viable options available to you that will give you a competitive edge in your desired subject area?
Benefits and Drawbacks
Attending an online graduate program gives you the freedom to complete your courses independently anywhere you have a computer and an Internet connection. That makes them for students who work full time or have other commitments that keep them from being able to juggle a traditional class schedule. Online classes remove geographic boundaries as well, making it possible for students in rural or remote areas to access urban and international colleges and universities.
Although you will still have to turn in your assignments before assigned deadlines and complete your courses within a required timeframe, studying online allows you to complete your degree on your schedule and at your pace. Additionally, students who are employed are able to keep their jobs, which gives them a competitive advantage over students who put their careers on hold in order to attend a campus-based graduate program.
Because studying online requires self-motivation and time management skills, you will be at risk of falling behind in your coursework if you have poor study habits or are not organized and disciplined. In addition, even though you can communicate with your professors and other students using email, discussion boards, and instant messaging, it does not replace face-to-face interaction, which may be challenging when you need one-on-one help.
While online degree options exist for nearly every subject, those that require hands-on experience for successful completion of a graduate degree program are typically not suitable subjects to pursue online. Some degree programs, such as computer science, accounting or public administration, naturally lend themselves to online study. Others, like nursing or clinical counseling, which require students to gain hands-on knowledge and practical experience, are better suited for traditional classroom settings.
While a master’s degree can potentially provide students greater marketability and higher earning potential, some professions will benefit more than others. Getting a graduate degree does not guarantee that you will financially recover shortly after graduation.
When deciding whether to get a master’s degree, think about:
- Tuition costs. On-campus graduate schools can be expensive, so it may be more feasible to attend a more affordable master’s degree online program, especially if you aren’t planning to work while pursuing your degree.
- Debt load. Certain types of student loans start accumulating interest while you are still in school, which means you may be required to make payments before you have graduated and secured employment.
- No higher salary guarantee. Graduating from graduate school does not automatically translate into a job offer with a higher salary than what you earned before graduate school.
- Slow return on investment. Even if you do earn a higher salary after graduation, it can take a while to offset student loans and the zero or negative cash flow if you did not work while studying.
- Limited job opportunities. If you pursue a degree in a highly concentrated field or in a subject area that does not necessarily require an advanced degree, finding suitable employment may be difficult.
Ultimately, the choice of whether to pursue an online or campus-based degree is a personal one.
Employer Perception of Online Graduate Programs
According to Hiring Practices and Attitudes: Traditional vs. Online Degree Credentials, a report produced by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), most employers more concerned about school reputation and educational quality than they are with the way you earn your degree.
Based on the responses of 449 human resources professionals randomly selected from SHRM’s database, results reflect an increased acceptance of accredited online courses and degrees among HR professionals. Nearly 75 percent of respondents indicated they agreed that individual online courses are equally as credible as traditional university courses. However, the same report revealed that 61 percent of respondents did not believe that online master’s degrees from schools with no physical classrooms or campuses are equally as credible as online degree programs that are associated with traditional universities.
To eliminate the perceived stigma some employers have regarding online education, many students choose to attend an online degree program offered by a traditional college or university with a long and respected tradition of educating students in campus-based programs.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Committing to an Online Master’s Degree
Entering a graduate program is an important decision. You need to seriously consider whether you have the discipline to complete your degree; how you will pay for tuition, books and fees; and what type of post-graduation prospects and opportunities will potentially be available to you.
Students should ask themselves the following questions:
- How important is face-to-face interaction with my instructors and other students?
- Can I stay focused and complete my assignments on time without reminders from my instructors?
- Do I have excellent reading comprehension skills?
- Do I have the technical skill to use a computer and the Internet to learn and participate in a course?
- What is my motivation for wanting to pursue an online degree?
- Considering my professional and personal schedules, how much time can I realistically dedicate to online study?
Although distance education is an excellent option for many students, some students struggle with learning independently and completing an online degree program. Be honest about your abilities and limitations when deciding whether or not an online graduate degree program is best for you. Closely examine your reasons for pursuing a master’s degree and be realistic about what you want to get out of your experience.
In order to pursue a master’s degree, a student must complete an undergraduate bachelor’s degree. Some universities offer a Bachelor/Master combination degree, which is typically a 5-6 year program.
Length of Study
Traditional master’s degrees take 2 years to complete, with the first year focused on classwork and the second working on advanced research and a final project. Nontraditional programs offer flexible schedules, longer or shorter completion times, and a variety of culmination requirements, including testing and creative projects. Students should carefully determine the program that fits both their schedule as well as their future career prospects when choosing a program.
After deciding to pursue your degree, conduct research to increase your chances of admission to a quality school.
Navigate the Admissions Process
Most graduate degree programs require submission of an application packet that includes a processing fee, personal statement essays, professional and academic reference letters, project samples, and official transcripts from every undergraduate institution attended. Brick-and-mortar graduate programs require applicants to have a minimum 3.0 GPA, leadership experience, related professional experience and high standardized test scores.
The admissions process is sometimes affected by factors that are completely beyond your control. For instance, if a program is challenged by limited funding, space, faculty availability or resources, the admission process may be extremely selective and the acceptance rate quite low. You may not be accepted no matter how excellent your credentials.
Alternatively, graduate programs are also selective, but the admission requirements are typically a bit more flexible. There are no geographical boundaries, lower operational costs and larger class sizes, so the application process may be shorter and somewhat easier than if pursuing the same degree in a traditional graduate degree program.
Prepare for Standardized Testing
Depending on the program you select, you may be required to take the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, or MCAT. Science and humanities graduate programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), while students interested in attending master’s level business school programs must take the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Pre-law students are required to pass the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) to be considered for entry into a law program, and pre-med students take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) as part of the medical school application process. Each of these tests have respective minimum score requirements, test-taking deadlines, and applicable fees that must be taken into consideration.