The Online Master’s Programs Guide 2021

by Genevieve Carlton
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An online master's degree offers a flexible route to career advancement and can translate into higher earning potential.

Online master's programs provide graduate-level training in a focused area. Professionals with a master's degree benefit from a lower unemployment rate and earn a median salary $12,000 per year more than professionals with a bachelor's degree. Online programs make it easier than ever to earn a graduate degree.

What Are the Types of Master's Degrees?

Graduate students earn different types of master's degrees depending on their discipline. Common types of master's degrees include:


Master of Arts

Many humanities and social sciences departments offer MA degrees. Common disciplines include English, history, communication, philosophy, and political science.

Graduate students in an MA program complete coursework in their specialty areas. Most MA programs also include a master's exam or thesis to demonstrate graduate-level mastery in the subject. Earning an MA generally takes two years for full-time students. After completing an MA, graduates can enter the workforce or apply to Ph.D. programs.


Master of Science

Social science, natural science, and technology departments typically offer MS degrees. For example, students earn MS degrees in biology, physics, psychology, mathematics, statistics, or engineering. An MS emphasizes quantitative analysis and research over qualitative analysis. Fields that blend qualitative and quantitative approaches, such as economics and psychology, may offer either an MA or MS degree with different graduation requirements.

Earning an MS degree generally takes two years, though some programs offer accelerated one-year routes. After completing an MS degree, graduates can pursue careers in their field or enroll in Ph.D. programs.


Master of Fine Art

Graduate students can earn MFAs in painting, sculpture, dance, theater, creative writing, graphic design, and photography. Some universities also offer MFAs in game design. During an MFA, graduate students complete coursework and projects in their field. Most MFA programs incorporate workshops and critiquing sessions.

Unlike an MA or MS degree, an MFA is the terminal degree in the field, meaning these disciplines do not offer a doctoral degree. As a result, most MFA programs require 2-3 years to complete. After earning an MFA in creative writing or sculpture, graduates qualify for tenure-track academic jobs.

Can You Get a Master's Degree All Online?

More than 1.2 million graduate students enrolled in online courses in 2018. More universities continue to offer online master's programs in education, business, technology, social work, and psychology. During an online master's degree, degree-seekers complete courses using distance learning platforms. Some programs, particularly in healthcare, the social sciences, and business, include in-person elements to develop practical experience.

Online master's programs offer flexible schedules, access to campus resources such as the university library, and college career centers. Many distance learners participate in their school's in-person or virtual commencement ceremonies.

How to Choose an Online Master's Degree Program

Choosing the right online master's program will shape a student's academic and professional future. When deciding on a program, prospective applicants must identify their priorities and needs. Some students look for affordable programs, while others want institutions with strong placement records.

Do you prefer a hybrid option with some on-campus courses or a fully online degree? What practicum or internship options does the program offer? Will synchronous or asynchronous classes better fit your schedule? Weighing these considerations to identify the best fit for your needs.

Popular Online Master's Degree Programs

Universities offer online master's degrees in popular fields, including business, technology, education, criminal justice, social work, and nursing. Students also earn online master's degrees in liberal arts and sciences. This section introduces some of the most popular online master's programs. Check out rankings and resources for each of the following master's programs below.

Online Master's Degree vs. a Traditional Degree

At many schools, the delivery of instruction is the only difference between an online master's degree and an in-person degree. Online learners often complete the same courses and graduation requirements, including any internships or practicum requirements, as on-campus students. The two different learning formats typically grant identical diplomas.

The online learning format appeals to working professionals and busy students who balance school with other responsibilities.

Accreditation for Master's Programs

Prospective graduate students should always choose accredited universities. Accredited schools meet the highest educational standards for granting degrees. In addition to university accreditation, many master's programs hold accreditation through specialized accrediting agencies. Accredited schools and programs meet the requirements for federal financial aid and professional licenses.

How Long Does It Take To Get an Online Master's Degree?

Earning a master's degree typically takes full-time students two years to complete. However, the total time to complete an online master's degree depends on the program and the student's enrollment options. For example, some programs offer accelerated options that allow enrollees to earn master's degrees in one year. Other programs include internships or clinical practicum requirements that add to degree timelines.

When researching specific programs, consider the total credits required, any practicum requirements, and class delivery options, such as synchronous, asynchronous, or self-paced classes.

How Much Does an Online Master's Degree Cost?

With college costs rising, many prospective master's students worry about paying for their degrees. The cost of an online master's degree varies depending on the program and school. In 2018-2019, graduate students spent over $19,000 per year on average in tuition and fees. Public universities cost around $12,000 per year, while private universities charge nearly $26,000.

Program costs also vary by discipline. MBA programs, for instance, can cost more than $100,000 per year. Distance learners can benefit by choosing affordable programs outside of their local areas.

Paying for Graduate Study

Cost-conscious students can look for more affordable programs, work while in school, or research financial aid opportunities to help them pay for online college. For example, public universities offer in-state tuition discounts for residents. Some online universities also extend these discounts to fully online learners.

An online learning format makes it easier to fit school into a work schedule, and distance learners often work while earning their degrees. On-campus job opportunities include research assistantships and teaching assistantships. Graduate students can also pay for school using financial aid.

Financial Aid for Online Graduate School

Graduate students, including online learners attending accredited schools, qualify for many forms of financial aid. Master's students can pay for their degrees with scholarships, fellowships, work-study programs, grants, and student loans.

During graduate school, plan to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year. Students who file their FAFSA forms can receive federal grants, loans, and work-study jobs. Graduate students automatically qualify as independent students and do not need to provide parental financial information. Federal loans offer lower interest rates and more repayment options than private loans, so most students should use federal student loans when possible.

Master's students can seek graduate scholarships from professional associations, private foundations, and universities to help them pay for school. In addition, online master's students may qualify for fellowships, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships.

When Should You Begin Applying to Graduate Programs?

Deadlines for online master's programs vary. Some programs only admit incoming students for the fall term, while others offer multiple start dates each year. Programs may also accept applications on a rolling basis rather than setting a deadline.

Plan to spend at least a month preparing your application materials, writing your personal statement, and getting letters of recommendation. If you need to take graduate admissions tests, budget time to study for and take the exam.

Applying to Online Graduate Programs

Online graduate programs apply several different sets of admission requirements and deadlines. The following checklist walks through the steps to complete your application.

  1. Visit college websites and request more information: Most online programs provide coursework, graduation requirements, and admissions process information on their websites. Make sure you meet admission requirements before applying. Reach out to admissions departments or program advisors with any application questions.
  2. Understand and meet entrance requirements: A prospective master's student typically needs a bachelor's degree from an accredited college for admission. Some programs also recommend or require particular majors, prerequisite coursework, professional licensure, or work experience. Depending on the program, applicants may also need to submit scores from standardized tests, such as the GRE or GMAT.
  3. Request and receive letters of recommendation: Master's-level programs evaluate applicants on several factors, including their ability to succeed at the graduate level. Recommendation letters from former professors or supervisors help programs decide whether to admit applicants. Make sure to ask your letter-writers at least three weeks before the deadline.
  4. Draft and revise personal statements: Most master's programs require a personal statement that speaks to the applicant's prior education and experience, along with their education and career aspirations. Set aside time to draft and revise your personal statement. Consider asking a friend or family member to proofread and provide feedback.

Applying to Graduate Programs During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic altered many universities' admissions policies. Before submitting an application, research whether the program made any changes to its delivery options or admission requirements.

For example, many universities waived their standardized test requirements. Online programs also adjusted their in-person requirements and practicum options. Reach out to an admissions counselor or academic advisor to learn more about applying to grad school during the pandemic.

What Can You Do With an Online Master's Degree?

Graduates with online master's degrees can pursue many rewarding and lucrative careers. After completing an online degree, professionals work as financial managers, school principals, clinical social workers, data scientists, and nurse practitioners.

An online graduate degree from an accredited institution meets the same licensure and professional certification requirements as an in-person degree, allowing online graduates to work in the same fields as their on-campus counterparts.

Students with online degrees benefit from flexible learning formats. Distance learners hone their time management and organizing abilities, while also strengthening their technology and remote work capabilities. Many employers look for job candidates with these qualities.

Frequently Asked Questions

true Is It Possible To Get a Master's Degree Online?

Yes. Many universities offer online master's programs in business, education, social work, public health, and engineering. Accredited online master's programs meet the same standards as in-person programs.

true Do Online Master's Degrees Look Bad?

An accredited online master's degree offers the same educational quality as in-person programs. Graduates with online degrees receive the same diplomas as on-campus graduates.

true What Is the Best Online School for a Master's Degree?

Many top-ranked universities offer online graduate degrees. Prospective students should research the program that best fits their personal needs and career goals.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

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