What is a Master’s Degree?
A master’s degree provides specialized knowledge in a field. Earning a master’s degree in business administration prepares graduates for management and leadership roles in business, while earning a master of science in nursing qualifies nurses for advanced positions. Many teachers receive higher salaries after completing their master’s degree, and certain job titles — such as school principal, nurse practitioner, and many management-level business positions — require a master’s.
Earning a master’s degree adds knowledge and skills in a students subject area and expands career opportunities and salary potential. Ideal master’s program candidates include working professionals who need a master’s degree for career advancement, and recent bachelor’s graduates who need an advanced degree to meet their desired career qualifications. A graduate degree can also help professionals change careers.
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Online vs. On-campus Master’s Degree Programs
Prospective students considering a master’s degree may wonder how online programs differ from on-campus programs. Each option brings benefits and drawbacks. For example, on-campus students benefit from in-person interactions with their advisers, but they must also follow more stringent schedules and may struggle to work while earning their degrees. Similarly, online students benefit from the flexibility of arranging their coursework around their schedules, but they make take longer to complete their degrees.
The following table lays out some of the benefits and drawbacks of different program types, comparing on-campus, evening, and hybrid programs with online programs. Different types of master’s degrees appeal to different students, depending on their career goals and circumstances. In addition, this section explains the difference between online and on-campus master’s degrees, and the potential cost savings of an online program.
Online vs. On-Campus Master’s Degree Programs
|On-Campus Full Time||
|Hybrid/Blended||Offers students the opportunity to interact with each other, instructors, and support services in both online and in-person formats||
Is an Online Master’s Degree Comparable to an On-campus Degree?
Online master’s degrees compare favorably to on-campus degrees. Hundreds of colleges and universities offer both on-campus and online master’s programs. In many cases, online and on-campus programs cover the same material, use the same faculty, and offer identical diplomas. The delivery format may be the only difference between the two degrees. Online students often receive full benefits from their college or university, and can typically access the same student resources as on-campus students. Many institutions provide specialized resources for online students, including online writing centers and online career services.
Accredited online graduate programs meet the same academic standards as accredited on-campus programs. In order to gain accreditation, online master’s programs must demonstrate their accordance with academic standards, learning outcomes for students, and faculty qualifications. Most colleges and universities issue diplomas for online degrees that list the institution’s name without identifying the student as an online student. Potential employers, licensing boards, and professional organizations treat accredited online degrees the same as on-campus degrees. Since accreditation plays a major role in degree quality, prospective graduate students should only apply to accredited online master’s programs.
How Much Does an Online Master’s Degree Cost?
Earning an online master’s degree rather than an in-person degree can save students money. The cost of an online master’s program varies depending on the school, degree, and student’s residency status. Public schools typically charge lower tuition fees than private schools, for example. Many public universities offer significant tuition discounts for out-of-state students who enroll fully online versus those who enroll on-campus. Other schools offer flat online tuition rates regardless of students’ residency status. Both options save out-of-state students on tuition costs.
In addition to tuition, online students save on commuting costs, parking fees, and other expenses related to on-campus attendance. Online students, however, may need to pay technology fees or online enrollment fees. Programs may also offer accelerated online options to save students on tuition expenses. Since costs and fees vary by program, prospective online students should compare the total cost of online master’s degrees at their potential programs.
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Types of Master’s Degrees
Graduate students can earn a master of arts in history, a master of science in computer engineering, or a master of fine arts in graphic design, among many other master’s degree options. Professional master’s degrees include a master of business administration or a juris doctorate. MA and MS degrees may open up a variety of career paths, while professional degrees, such as a law degree, provide narrower sets of skills and knowledge. This section covers the major types of master’s degrees and their common career outcomes.
Master of Arts (MA)
An MA provides graduate-level training in a humanities or social sciences discipline. Graduate students can earn MA degrees in history, English, political science, and communications. These fields emphasize writing and analytical skills, preparing graduates for careers in the business, education, government, and nonprofit sectors. Teachers may earn an MA in their subject area to further their training. Most programs include a core curriculum, electives, and specialized courses in the graduate student’s subfield. MA students may write a thesis or pass an examination after completing the coursework requirements. Most MA programs require GRE scores to evaluate applicants.
|Job Title||Median Salary|
|Human Resources (HR) Director||$88,092|
|High School Teacher||$51,503|
|Program Coordinator, Nonprofit Organization||$43,053|
Master of Science (MS)
Colleges and universities offer MS degrees in science and technology fields. For example, students can earn an MS in computer science, engineering, or information systems. Graduate students can also pursue an MS in biology, chemistry, or another science field. Earning an MS typically takes two years of full-time study, and prepares graduates for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. MS graduates may work as software engineers or data analysts, or in other tech jobs. Nursing programs also offer MS degrees. The admission requirements for an MS program vary depending on the field. Most programs require GRE scores as part of the admission process.
|Job Title||Median Salary|
Master of Business Administration (MBA)
One of the most versatile master’s degrees, an MBA prepares graduates for careers in multiple business specialties. MBA programs typically offer concentrations in areas including accounting, marketing, finance, human resources, and other business subfields. Some programs include specializations in supply chain management, information systems, and entrepreneurship. An MBA curriculum includes core courses that emphasize leadership, analysis, and management, plus electives or concentration courses. As a professional degree, an MBA offers real-world training, often incorporating an internship to help students build professional networks and gain hands-on experience. Most MBA students must complete the GMAT as part of the admission process.
|Job Title||Median Salary|
|Senior Financial Analyst||$81,821|
|Chief Financial Officer (CFO)||$144,489|
|Human Resources (HR) Manager||$71,528|
Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
Earning an MFA prepares graduate students for careers in fine arts. Once admitted to an MFA program, students specialize in an area such as graphic design, video production, or visual design. Universities may offer MFAs in fields like photography, painting, sculpting, creative writing, or poetry. MFA students deepen their technical and artistic abilities, preparing to work as graphic designers, creative directors, and art directors. Liberal arts universities, art schools, and technical schools may offer MFA degrees.
|Job Title||Median Salary|
Juris Doctor (JD)
A JD degree trains graduate students to become lawyers. Prospective law students take the LSAT to gain admission to law school, after which the degree typically takes three years to complete. Many law schools incorporate summer internships to build legal experience. Law students often complete a core curriculum with classes in criminal law, constitutional law, and patent law, with the option to take electives to specialize their degrees. Specializations may include environmental law, business law, intellectual property law, or healthcare law. Graduates pursue careers as lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals.
|Job Title||Median Salary|
How to Choose an Online Master’s Degree
Prospective master’s students may feel overwhelmed by options when learning about graduate programs. Thousands of degree granting institutions offer master’s programs across the country, with many providing fully online master’s degree programs. Before applying to an online master’s degree, prospective students must carefully research each program to determine which degree best fits their career goals and interests.
Several factors can help prospective students choose the right master’s program for them. Students should consider whether an institution is public or private, plus the total tuition cost, the program length, and online support services offered by each institution. Some students may prefer local institutions with hybrid options, while others might benefit from specialized, out-of-state programs. Finally, students can learn more about choosing the best master’s program and research the best accredited online graduate programs in their field.
Public University vs. Private College
Both public and private universities offer online master’s programs, but tuition rates, degree offerings, and support services may vary by institution. Public universities generally charge lower tuition rates than private schools. College Board reports that for the 2018-19 academic year, in-state undergraduates attending public schools paid around $10,000 in tuition and fees, while undergraduates at private schools paid over $35,000. Tuition rates for graduate programs vary widely; however, and public schools may not offer major savings over private schools.
Public universities often provide a wider range of degree options than private schools. Institution size may play a larger role in class size and degree offerings than the institution’s status, and in some specialized areas, private schools may offer more options. Regardless of whether prospective students prefer public or private colleges, students should only apply to accredited online graduate programs.
Is It Better to Attend an Online Master’s Degree Program in My State?
Some prospective students seek online programs in their home state. Students may benefit from easier access to on-campus resources, or from the ability to attend any in-person orientations at the university. Online graduate students who complete an internship or clinical experience during their program may also benefit from their institution’s relationships with local organizations.
Out-of-state programs often provide dedicated resources and support for online students, allowing students to arrange internships in their local area. Similarly, some institutions place geographical restrictions on their online programs, requiring students to live within driving distance. In certain locations and fields, students may not have in-state options to pursue their master’s degree. In these cases, online students must choose an out-of-state school.
Public universities often offer lower tuition rates to in-state students, though some institutions offer the same rates to all students regardless of their residency status. Many private schools offer flat tuition rates to both resident and nonresident students. Since policies vary by institution, prospective graduate students need to carefully research their potential programs.
How Long Does It Take to Get an Online Master’s Degree?
The length of an online master’s degree varies depending on the program. A master’s degree typically requires 30-45 credits and two years of full-time study to complete. Some programs may require more or less time; a juris doctorate, for example, takes three years to complete on a full-time schedule. Many online programs enroll students on a part-time status, in which case they may only complete one class per semester. These students may take three or more years to complete their master’s degree.
Programs may also offer an accelerated option, through which students earn their degrees in less time. An accelerated MBA, for example, may take 12-15 months to complete. Accelerated programs are often particularly time-consuming, and students in these programs may not be able to balance their coursework with work obligations.
Accreditation acts as a marker of academic excellence. Colleges and universities voluntarily undergo review from independent, nonprofit accrediting agencies, which measure student learning outcomes, academic improvement plans, graduation requirements, and faculty qualifications. Colleges and universities can receive either regional or national accreditation. Regional accreditation remains the highest standard, offering important benefits for students, including federal financial aid qualification.
Regional accrediting agencies operate in six regions across the country. In the northeast, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accredits colleges and universities, while the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) operates from District of Columbia to New York. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) accredits institutions in the South, while the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Senior College and University Commission (WASC) accredits schools in California, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) covers the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Utah, and Nevada. Colleges and universities in the remaining 19 states, from Arizona to Ohio, pursue regional accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).
In addition to regional and national accreditation, programs can earn specialized accreditation. Programmatic accrediting agencies measure discipline-specific educational practices, and many confer additional benefits, such as qualifying graduates for licensure or certification. Prospective students should choose accredited online master’s programs; however, programmatic accreditation does not exist for some disciplines, such as history, English, and biology. In these cases, students should check for regional or national accreditation on the institutional level. Learn more about accreditation from the accreditation guide.
Applying to an Online Master’s Degree Program
Before enrolling in an online master’s program, prospective students must successfully complete the admissions process. While the undergraduate admissions process typically evaluates students’ overall promise, the master’s process looks for specific skills and abilities that indicate student potential at the graduate level. Graduate programs often require specialized standardized tests, such as the GMAT or LSAT, to evaluate candidates’ abilities.
Most master’s programs require undergraduate transcripts and proof of a bachelor’s degree. Applicants also typically provide standardized test scores. Many programs require additional materials, such as a statement of purpose explaining the applicant’s goals for their master’s degree, and letters of recommendation from academic and professional references. The process varies depending on the program and university. Prospective master’s students can learn more about getting into graduate school in the following sections, which cover standardized tests and career outlook information for professionals with master’s degrees.
Online master’s programs may require standardized test scores as part of the application process. Programs use test scores to evaluate applicants’ qualifications for a graduate degree. Depending on their prospective degree, applicants may need to submit GMAT, GRE, or LSAT scores. Many liberal arts programs require the GRE, for example, while business schools and related master’s programs may require the GMAT or accept the GRE as an alternative. Some programs do not require standardized test scores, or waive the requirement for candidates who meet GPA minimums. These tests charge a fee to take the exam, which may exceed $200.
Most business programs require the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). The test measures analytical writing, integrated reasoning, and quantitative and verbal skills, and takes around three hours. The Graduate Management Admission Council designs the test around the skills required to succeed in an MBA program. Test-takers receive a score of 200-800, and the GMAT costs $250.
One of the most versatile standardized tests, the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) meets the entrance requirements for many grad school programs. The exam covers verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing, and takes around four hours. The scoring system assigns test-takers a score of 130-170 in the reasoning sections, and 0-6 in the writing section. The GRE costs $205.
Most law schools require the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), offered by the Law School Admission Council. The LSAT measures logical reasoning, reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and writing ability. The test takes four hours to complete, and test-takers receive a score of 120-180. The LSAT costs $180.
The Miller Analogies Test (MAT) measures an individual’s analytical thinking. Offered by Pearson, the MAT uses a computer-based testing model. Test-takers answer 120 questions in 60 minutes, using the partial analogy format which also appears on SAT and GRE tests. The MAT costs $70-$100, depending on the testing center.
- TOEFL or IELTS
International students may need to provide Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS) scores to demonstrate their English proficiency. Many programs set a minimum score on these tests for graduate admissions.
Career Outlook for Online Master’s Graduates
An online master’s degree can increase lifetime earning potential for professionals in any field, and help those professionals qualify for more advanced positions. For example, a master’s in educational leadership can qualify teachers to become principals and school administrators, and a master’s in business administration allows business professionals to apply for leadership positions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in many sectors, a master’s degree may increase salaries, including in healthcare, education, business, and STEM fields.
Professionals with their master’s degrees tend to earn higher salaries than those with their bachelor’s. This benefit continues through workers’ careers, and by mid-career, professionals with master’s degrees earn more than $10,000 a year over those with their bachelor’s. The following table shows the median salary by years of experience for professionals with associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees.
|Degree Type||1-4 Years||5-9 Years||10-19 Years||20+ Years|
Highest Paying Master’s Degree Careers
Attending online master’s programs can lead to high-paying careers in many industries. The following table shows the median salary for professionals with master’s degrees in various fields, including nursing, engineering, and finance. As the table demonstrates, salaries increase with years of experience.
|Master’s Degree Type||1-4 Years||5-9 Years||10-19 Years||20+ Years|
|Finance and Economics||$60,087||$92,841||$114,773||$136,216|
Financial Aid Opportunities for Online Master’s Students
Online master’s students can pay for their degrees using savings, student loans, work-study opportunities, and scholarships. Graduate students qualify for most of the same funding sources as undergraduates, and many private organizations offer specialized scholarships and grants to support students earning their master’s degrees. Some financial aid opportunities cater to specific fields — for example, several federal and state programs offer aid to students earning their master’s in teaching or healthcare fields.
Prospective students can learn about their expected financial contributions and whether they qualify for federal aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA determines whether graduate students qualify for federal student loans, grants, scholarships, or the federal work-study program. The FAFSA requires students’ financial information, and potentially their parents’ financial information, as well. Prospective master’s students can learn more by reading the FAFSA guide.
Many graduate students rely on student loans to cover the cost of their online master’s degree. After students take out loans, they must repay the money with interest. Different lenders offer different terms and interest rates for student loans, which can help online students finance their degrees. Graduate students qualify for student loan programs from the federal government and private student loan lenders.
The Federal Student Aid office provides information on qualifying for federal loans, which offer better terms than most private loans. For example, students may take out low interest rate loans, and defer payments until six months after graduation. Prospective students should fill out the FAFSA each year to qualify for federal student loans and other forms of federal aid. If federal loans do not cover the student’s financial expenses, private lenders remain an option.
Work-study programs provide part-time jobs for qualified master’s students. Work-study students work on-campus or off-campus jobs, and the program subsidizes their wages. Students benefit from earning wages and gaining professional experience while in school. In many cases, work-study programs attempt to assign students to jobs that provide experience relevant to their degree. For example, library science master’s students may receive work-study jobs at a university library. Graduate students may qualify for work-study programs offered through the federal financial aid program or state government programs.
The federal work-study program funds students attending thousands of institutions across the country. Participants qualify by filling out the FAFSA and meeting income eligibility guidelines. Once accepted into the program, graduate students earn at least the federal minimum wage, and potentially more depending on their position. Master’s work-study students receive hourly pay or a salary.
Master’s students may qualify for teaching, research, or other assistantships. Programs may offer assistantships to qualified master’s students as a form of financial assistance, and to attract strong candidates. During an assistantship, students work part-time for the department. Teaching assistants may grade undergraduate assignments, monitor online discussion forums, or provide other support for the professor. Research assistants conduct research under the direction of a faculty supervisor. Departments may hire assistants to provide additional support, including student services or support for multiple faculty members.
Assistantships typically provide a tuition waiver and a stipend. Some may also offer benefits. Students may need to submit an assistantship application and provide letters of recommendation. The funding for an assistantship may come from the department, the university, or other sources depending on the institution’s funding structure.
Scholarships for Online Master’s Students
Students enrolled in online master’s programs qualify for many scholarships, grants, and fellowships to help cover the cost of their degree. Scholarships offer recipients educational funds that they do not need to repay, making them preferable to loans; however, master’s students must meet the eligibility requirements for scholarships and submit an application, which may require transcripts, essays, and letters of recommendation. Most scholarships offer awards based on students’ prospective fields. For example, some scholarships fund accounting graduate students, while others fund students earning degrees in healthcare fields. By researching scholarship opportunities, prospective graduate students can potentially save thousands of dollars.
- AICPA John L. Carey Scholarship Award
Award Amount: $5,000
Who’s Eligible: Non business majors pursuing graduate degrees in accounting qualify for this scholarship. Applicants must intend to become CPAs.
- Government Finance Professional Development Scholarship
Award Amount: $10,000
Who’s Eligible: State or local government employees qualify for this scholarship, which provides funds to pay for a master’s degree in public administration, accounting, finance, economics, or business administration.
- Anita Door Graduate Scholarship
Award Amount: $5,000
Who’s Eligible: Emergency nurses earning an MSN to qualify for this award from the Emergency Nurses Association. Applicants should focus on administration.
- TEACH Grant
Award Amount: $4,000
Who’s Eligible: Students earning their master’s in teaching or education qualify for the TEACH grant, managed by the federal financial aid office. Recipients must teach for four years at a low-income school.
- AICPA Accountemps Student Scholarship Award
Award Amount: $10,000
Who’s Eligible: Graduate students in accounting who plan to become CPAs qualify for this award, offered to four students each year.
- Legal Opportunity Scholarship
Award Amount: $15,000
Who’s Eligible: First-year law students qualify for this scholarship, offered by the American Bar Association. This program provides financial assistance to racial and ethnic minority students.
- Frank L. Greathouse Government Accounting Scholarship
Award Amount: $10,000
Who’s Eligible: Graduate students in accounting qualify for this scholarship; applicants must provide a letter of recommendation that speaks to their commitment to the public sector.
- Vivian Drenckhahn Student Scholarship
Award Amount: $2,500
Who’s Eligible: Master’s students in health education, including public health, qualify for this scholarship. Applicants must hold membership with the Society for Public Health Education.
- HRSA Scholarships
Award Amount: Varies
Who’s Eligible: Offered by the Health Resources and Service Administration, master’s students in healthcare-related fields qualify for these scholarships, including school-based scholarships.
Are online master’s degrees respected? Yes, employers respect degrees earned from online master’s programs. Online master’s degrees from accredited online masters programs meet the same educational standards as in-person degrees. At many institutions, online programs follow the same curricula and use the same faculty members as on-campus programs, attesting to their quality.
What is the best online master’s degree program? The best online master’s programs meet students’ career goals and needs. Many top colleges and universities offer online graduate programs in business, healthcare, counseling, and other in-demand fields. Prospective students can research the best programs in their field.
How much is an online master’s degree? The cost of an online master’s degree depends on the program and institution. Learn more here.
Can you get a master’s degree online? Yes, you can enroll in a fully online master’s program. Prospective graduate students can research the best online master’s programs in their field, apply for scholarships and other financial aid, and earn their degree online.
What is the easiest master’s degree to get online? Master’s degrees exist in many different fields, including accounting, social work, business, and education. Some schools offer accelerated, one-year master’s programs, which allow professionals to complete their graduate degrees quickly. Online programs also offer flexibility and accessibility, which can make it easier to finish a master’s degree.
How to get your master’s degree online? Prospective students start by researching the best online master’s programs in their field and submitting applications. After gaining admission to a master’s program, students complete the coursework requirements. Depending on the degree, they may also take a capstone course or an internship, or complete clinical hours or a student teaching experience. After meeting graduation requirements, students earn their degrees.
How long does an online master’s degree take? Most online master’s programs take around two years for full-time students. Learn more here.