What is a Master’s Degree?
A master’s degree is earned through completion of a graduate program beyond a bachelor’s degree. Master’s degree curriculum is designed to enable students to gain expertise in an academic discipline through intensive coursework and by completing a culminating project or thesis. Master-level degrees are awarded in most disciplines and at a variety of institutions, including public, private, and online colleges and universities.
Attainment is on the rise, according to the NCES, which reported 754,000 master’s degrees awarded during the 2013-2014 school year, and estimates that 798,000 master’s degrees will be awarded in 2016-2017. As a result, many traditional schools have branched out into online education to meet increasing student demand for the accessibility, flexibility, and affordability of earning a master’s degree online.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GET AN ONLINE MASTER’S DEGREE?
The time it takes to complete an online master’s degree program depends on several variables. Characteristics that can affect the length of an online master’s degree include type of program, full- or part-time status, and method of delivery. For example, a graduate degree in business such as an MBA—among the most popular and widely available online majors—generally takes less time to complete than a degree that requires extensive clinical training in addition to academic coursework, as is the case for mental health, nursing, and other professions relating to medicine and public practice.
Earning a master’s degree online can be achieved in one of two ways: individual pace or cohort learning styles. A college or university may offer all online programs through one method or the other, or utilize a certain type of learning module for a particular program as they see fit. Individual pace learning typically allows students to complete courses in their own time and, while some collaborative projects may be included, each student is responsible for completing their own coursework. By contrast, cohort learning involves group classes and requires students to move through each module as a group for the duration of the program. While the total number of credits necessary to graduate is different for each degree, on average, a student can expect to complete between 36 and 54 semester credits over a period of one-and-a-half to two years of full-time study.
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 AS GOOD AS AN ON-CAMPUS DEGREE?
As college instructors and administrators continue to add diverse online programs to their school’s offerings, attitudes are becoming increasingly positive towards distance education. Gone are the days of questioning the legitimacy of an online degree, with so much of our world completely dependent on online commerce and services. Clearly, online education is no different, and online programs are becoming more and more respected across the country. Online enrollment increased, especially among two-year colleges in 2015, with nearly all student growth that year attributed to distance education, even as overall college student enrollment numbers were unstable.
In addition to offering the same access to traditional tools and resources as an on-campus degree, online master’s degree programs allow students to learn at their convenience while continuing to work and take care of their family. Even better, the programs make no delineation between on-campus and online graduates, meaning “a degree is a degree” according to not only the awarding institution but also prospective employers. As the availability and quality of online master’s degrees continue to grow, so do the opportunities for graduates in a diverse range of professional fields and industries worldwide. Though it is up to each student to decide for themselves whether or not to attend an online college, earning a master’s degree online is poised to become a more convenient alternative to traditional learning methods.
How Much Does An Online Master’s Degree Cost?
It likely goes without saying that cost is a major factor in considering where and how to earn a degree. In your research you may have carefully compared tuition prices from school to school, however there are additional costs that are often overlooked by students and may even be downplayed by the institution itself. Be sure to include potential costs such as tuition and/or loan interest rates, living expenses, and textbooks and other course materials when budgeting your finances and plotting an estimate for the funds you’ll need.
Average Cost for Graduate Degrees
|Type of School||Yearly Tuition Cost + Fees|
|Private Non-Profit Institutions||$25,171|
|Private For-Profit Institutions||$14,265|
FINANCIAL AID OPPORTUNITIES FOR GRADUATE STUDENTS
There are a variety of types of financial aid available to college students. The following table lists the most common types of aid, including grants and scholarships (financial aid that does not have to be repaid), federal loans (borrowed money that must be repaid, with interest), education tax credits or deductions (a reduction in federal taxes owed to help offset the cost of higher education), and federal work-study (program that offers work opportunities to help students pay for school). As a standard first step in the application process, both undergraduate and graduate students should expect to complete the FAFSA, as many of the same opportunities for financial aid are available to students at both levels of study.
Financial Aid for Graduate Students
|Type of Aid||Percentage of Total Aid|
|Education Tax Credits/Deductions||9%|
Breakdown of average federal financial aid per full time enrolled student for the 2015-2016 school year
Source: College Board
How to Choose an Online Master’s Degree
We all know that choosing the right online master’s degree is important, but there is more to it than simply selecting a top program in your major of choice. When researching the best master’s in your field of interest, first and foremost be sure the program is accredited by a legitimate agency. You should also consider the reputation of the school and program and the cost of the degree, with available aid opportunities, as well as flexible scheduling, especially if you have existing work, childcare, and/or family obligations. If you are planning to pursue an online master’s degree in a field that requires practicums or clinical rotations, make sure the program you choose offers opportunities to gain work experience in a professional setting that is near your residence, in addition to completing the rest of your coursework online.
TYPES OF MASTER’S DEGREES
Not all master’s degrees are the same. Curriculum and outcomes differ depending on the type of graduate study involved in each degree. High-level master’s degree categories encompass various disciplines in a designated academic or professional field; for example, a master’s degree in history or English would likely be awarded as an MA degree, while a master’s program in engineering, biology, or other scientific discipline would typically culminate in an MS degree. The most common types are listed below:
- Master of Arts (MA)
Applied to master’s level graduate study of artistic and cultural majors and encompassing mostly theoretical, non-technical coursework; examples include history, English, literature, liberal arts, and foreign languages.
- Master of Science (MS)
Applied to master’s level graduate study of scientific and mechanical majors and encompassing science-based, technical coursework; majors include chemistry, biology, and engineering, and may also include topics which could fall under either an MA or MS such as counseling, social work, or psychology.
- Master of Business Administration (MBA)
Applied to graduate-level study of business administration; often includes further specialization in a professional major such as marketing, advertising, or entrepreneurship, among many customizable options.
- Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
A more direct cousin of the MA, the MFA is the terminal degree for the creative arts, encompassing a curriculum derived from liberal and studio arts and ideal for those interested in graduate study of majors like photography, painting, or sculpting.
- Juris Doctor (JD)
The Juris Doctor is required in the U.S. to practice law. While it is considered both a master’s and professional degree, JD candidates need only a bachelor’s degree to be eligible for this graduate entry-level program. The JD is considered the “first” law degree a prospective lawyer should pursue; they may go on to earn an additional Master of Laws (LL.M.), which consists of graduate-level research and independent study.
IS IT BETTER TO ATTEND AN ONLINE MASTER’S DEGREE PROGRAM IN MY STATE?
While it may be enticing to have the option to study anywhere in the U.S. through a distance program, earning a master’s degree online still comes with cost considerations between in-state and out-of-state tuition and fees. Traditionally, on-campus programs assess tuition costs differently according to whether a student is a resident of the state in which the school is located. If the student is a non-resident, costs are generally higher to earn an education out of state. (And, yes, a school will absolutely know what state you are in—colleges and universities have strict policies and regulations to confirm residency claims.)
The potential savings of earning a master’s online in your home state is just one of the many benefits. Many students opt to pursue online master’s degree programs near their residence to make the most of the school’s name recognition, campus resources, and more. Additionally, there may be restrictions that could prevent you from attending certain schools in other states; State Authorization, a requirement of the Higher Education Act, mandates that an institution is authorized to provide higher education and receive federal financial aid in its state of operation. Some schools are not authorized to provide online education in all 50 states: always check your school’s individual policies before applying.
Attending an accredited school is a must when it comes to higher education. Any legitimate college or university will be accredited by a national or regional agency; the latter being the most common type of accreditation. Transfer students should pay special attention to this designation, as nationally accredited institutions typically accept credit from regionally or nationally accredited institutions, while regionally accredited schools often do not accept credit from nationally accredited institutions. Look for legitimate accreditation agencies such as the Higher Learning Commission, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, or the New England Association of Schools and Colleges when choosing an online school.
Applying to a Master’s Degree Program
Every school has different requirements for applying to online master’s degree programs. Below are just some of the most common items that may be on your application checklist, however you should always check with your specific school for detailed requirements and deadlines.
Your resume is an important part of your application to a graduate program, outlining not only your previous education but also your academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and professional experience.
- Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are a common requirement that allow esteemed colleagues, mentors, and teachers of graduate applicants to elaborate on the student’s achievements, potential, and ambition in both a professional and personal sense.
- Application Fee
Each school’s policy regarding application fees is different, though it is common to charge a nominal fee (typically non-refundable) for Admissions to process your application. Make sure you pay the fee in its entirety, and according to the payment method specified, by the deadline to ensure the process runs smoothly.
Most schools will ask online master’s program applicants for “official transcripts,” or a copy of your permanent academic record that includes courses taken, dates of attendance, major, type of degree awarded, cumulative GPA, and all honors you received. Once you request transcripts, they are most often submitted directly from your previous school to the school you’re applying to, though you should confirm specific requirements regarding this process.
TESTS NEEDED TO APPLY FOR A MASTER’S DEGREE PROGRAM
In addition to submitting basic application materials, there are different types of tests available to prospective graduate degree students to enhance their skills. Depending on your path of study and career goals, one or more of the following may be required as part of your master’s degree online application. The following are among the most common tests your school may ask you to submit if you are entering a master’s degree program in a professional field or enrolling as an international student:
The Graduate Management Admissions Test helps to evaluate a candidate’s overall fitness for business programs through verbal, math, and analytical skill assessments; the test is commonly required of MBA candidates or other master’s level business majors.
The Graduate Record Examination is not specific to any graduate major or discipline, though it may include individual subject tests in a particular area, in addition to general assessment of verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills. A school may request that master’s candidates submit the general GRE or the GRE along with a subject test.
The Law School Admission Test is relatively self-explanatory; test scores are commonly requested of JD candidates in order to provide an assessment of their reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning skills, as well as their overall suitability for the law profession.
Similar to the GRE, the Miller Analogies Test is another generalized high-level test available to master’s degree candidates, however, unlike the GRE it is entirely verbal or computer-based. This test assesses logical and analytical reasoning skills through the use of partial analogies.
- TOEFL or IELTS
The Test of English as a Foreign Language and the International English Language Testing System are often required as methods of additional testing for ESL students applying to a master’s degree online. While the TOEFL is more common and is designed to test for English proficiency alone, the IELTS also tests for proficiency of the language, but within the particular context of academia.
Career Outlook for Master’s Degree Holders
Whatever your career aspirations, earning a master’s degree online can mean increased earning potential and greater employment opportunities in your field of choice. Master’s degrees are beneficial for high-level professionals across a range of diverse fields, from education to management to public service. Even if a career does not expressly require a master’s degree, any employer would be impressed with the enhanced skills of a candidate with a graduate education over a less experienced competitor.
Generally, for jobs in higher education, public service, and clinical practice, an advanced degree is required or preferred. Aspiring college professors and social workers, for example, as well as managers and business and finance professionals in high-level positions are expected to have at least a master’s degree with extensive experience to land top jobs. The following careers are just a few of the advanced positions available to graduates of an online master’s degree program:
- College Professor
Students looking to become professors at a state or community college must have at least a master’s degree; while there are rare exceptions, most full-time, tenured positions at national universities require a doctorate. College professors typically have a terminal degree in the specific area of study they intend to teach.
- Social Worker
Social workers help individuals, families, groups, and communities to live functional and happy lives. They typically begin their careers by studying psychology, sociology, or a related field at the undergraduate level and go on to earn a Master of Social Work, as well as pursue field licensure, in order to practice social work in their state.
- Marketing Manager
Marketing managers oversee the marketing of a business or product. While some employers may accept a bachelor’s degree, most high-level managerial positions in this field require a master’s education, as well as experience in advertising, sales, brand management, and general business.
- Financial Analyst
Financial analysts guide businesses and individuals in making high-level financial and investment decisions. These professionals may earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration, finance, economics, statistics, or accounting before earning a master’s in finance, which prepares them for senior positions in the industry.
AVERAGE SALARY FOR MASTER’S DEGREE HOLDERS
Across all disciplines, professionals with master’s degrees enjoy a higher salary, not only at the entry-level but especially as they move further along in their careers. While it can be challenging to decide whether or not to pursue a master’s degree if not required for your profession, the numbers don’t lie: master’s degree holders earn more than their less educated counterparts. Simply put, your salary can increase exponentially, the greater your level of education and experience. See the table below for projected earnings by degree:
Average Salary by Degree
|Degree Type||1-4 years||5-9 years||10-19 years||20+ years|