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What Is a Master's Degree

Master's degrees build skills and knowledge in a specialized study area, preparing candidates for advanced careers with higher salary potential. A 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows master's degree-holders earning a $1,545 weekly median salary. For comparison, bachelor's graduates earn $1,305.

An online master's degree gives students the flexibility to build new skills while keeping their current job. Many programs offer fully online enrollment options that suit working students.

For students considering a master's program online, we offer information on admission requirements, tuition rates, and common master's degrees.

Frequently Asked Questions About Master's Programs

Can You Get a Master's Degree All Online?

Many schools offer fully online master's programs that never require students to visit campus. Other programs may include occasional in-person class sessions, often held on weekends. When researching master's programs online, check the program page carefully for any campus requirements. Most schools indicate whether learners can do a program 100% online.

Do Online Master's Degrees Look Bad?

Employers generally respect online master's degrees just as much as in-person degrees. In most cases, a diploma and transcripts do not indicate that you attended an online master's program. Many professors teach both online and campus courses, with only small or no differences between the classes.

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

No one school offers the best online programs, and students can pick from many options when choosing a degree. When looking at schools, it pays to consider faculty, academic offerings, and price. Other factors to consider include program reputation, professional opportunities, and school location.

When Should You Begin Applying to Graduate Programs?

Traditional graduate programs start in late summer or early fall. However, application deadlines vary among schools and programs. Online master's programs may offer several start dates each year to give students flexibility. When researching master's programs online, note schools' application deadlines.

What Are the Types of Master's Degrees?

Students pick from many options when it comes to online master's programs. The list below highlights three popular types of graduate degrees available online.

How to Choose an Online Master's Program

Students should consider many factors when looking at online master's programs. This list highlights just a few of the most important things to think about.

Online master's programs offer classes in two main formats. Synchronous classes happen in real time, using video conferencing to mimic the classroom environment. Asynchronous classes let students work at their own pace and complete assignments any time of day. Depending on their availability, learners may find one format more convenient than the other.

When exploring graduate programs, research faculty members to learn more about their research, academic interests, and accomplishments. Looking up faculty can help students get a feel for a program. Learners may find that some professors relate to their interests more than others.

Make sure to review any in-person requirements for an online program. Some schools may require degree-seekers to visit campus once or twice throughout the program. Others may require weekly or monthly campus visits. Many schools offer fully online options with no campus visits required.

Popular Online Master's Degrees

Graduate students pursue online master's programs in many academic and professional fields. Popular fields like business administration can lead to careers in management and entrepreneurship. Similarly, education students often pursue careers in teaching.

This list represents a broad selection of possible fields of study.

Online Master's Degree vs. a Traditional Degree

Most online master's programs offer more flexibility than their campus counterparts. In asynchronous programs, students complete classwork whenever and wherever it suits their schedule. This flexibility makes it possible for many candidates to continue full-time work while doing a master's program online.

Many online programs include in-person requirements, particularly for hands-on fields like nursing or education. Some programs feature weekly or monthly in-person class sessions. Others require candidates to visit campus only once or twice total. In-person requirements often occur during evenings or weekends to accommodate working students.

Accreditation for Master's Programs

When researching master's programs online, check that a school holds proper institutional accreditation. Accreditation evaluates schools to make sure they meet broad education and administrative standards. Without accreditation, a school may not offer proper academic or professional preparation.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes six institutional accreditation agencies. Some programs may also hold individual accreditation from a programmatic accreditation agency. For example, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation offers programmatic accreditation for many teaching and education programs.

How Much Does an Online Master's Degree Cost?

Tuition rates for online master's programs vary among schools. Many factors affect tuition, including program length, field of study, and a school's public or private status.

National Center for Education Statistics data shows that annual graduate tuition averaged $19,792 in 2019-2020. Public school students paid an average rate of $12,410, while private school students paid $26,597.

Depending on the program, extra costs may include fees for lab work, simulation sessions, or other in-person requirements. Many schools require distance learners to pay technology fees.

Paying for Graduate Study

For many students, an online master's degree is a professional investment. Tuition may cost a lot, but opportunities for career advancement and a higher salary may help offset it. However, students can still take many steps to save money on graduate study.

Degree-seekers can explore tax credit opportunities, such as the Lifetime Learning Credit. Eligible learners get up to $2,000 annually from the tax credit, with renewal available for each year of graduate school. Applicants qualify to claim the credit with a modified adjusted gross income of under $69,000 for the year.

Learners should also look out for scholarships and grants while in school. Many organizations offer financial awards specifically for graduate students. Check for new scholarship opportunities each year.

Some public schools offer in-state tuition rates to online students, no matter where they live. Receiving in-state tuition usually reduces overall education expenses. Make sure to ask schools about tuition discounts for distance learners.

Students may need to complete prerequisite classes before starting graduate study, depending on their undergraduate background. Some schools let applicants test out of these classes, saving them money on tuition.

Financial Aid for Online Graduate School

Most colleges offer different options for financial aid for online students, including grants, scholarships, and loans. The list below highlights four of the most common financial aid types.

Grants offer higher education funding without required repayment. Graduate students do not qualify for federal Pell Grants, but might meet eligibility requirements for other organizations' grants. Applicants usually must show financial need to get grants.

Scholarships also offer funding that does not require repayment. Many public and private organizations fund scholarships for all types of students. Some awards serve students of particular backgrounds, while others serve those pursuing certain academic fields or career paths. Funders often award scholarships based on both merit and financial need.

Work-study programs use government funds to pay students for part-time work. Taking place both on and off campus, work-study jobs often relate to students' field of study. Learners use money earned from work-study jobs to pay for living expenses, tuition, and other education costs.

One of the most common sources of education funding, federal and private loans provide money that borrowers must repay. In general, federal loans offer more flexible repayment options than private loans.

Applying to Online Graduate Programs

Application deadlines and requirements for online master's programs vary among schools. Many programs offer rolling admissions, with several start dates throughout the year. Other programs maintain a traditional admissions schedule, requiring applications in December or January for admission the following fall.

All graduate programs require a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited college. Most require recommendation letters from professors or supervisors familiar with your work. Some require standardized tests, such as the GRE or GMAT.

Along with applications, students should fill out the FAFSA to determine eligibility for financial aid. Ideally, they should complete the FAFSA as early as possible during the calendar year. Some financial aid may use a first-come, first-serve model, so it pays to complete the FAFSA early.

Applying to Graduate Programs During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic altered many universities' admissions policies. Before applying, research whether the program changed 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.

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