Guide to Online Graduate Programs

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Pursuing an advanced degree is a significant undertaking for any student. Whether seeking a new profession or looking to grow in your chosen field, a master’s degree often leads to higher incomes and increased job opportunities. For many students, studying online is the best way to obtain a master’s. An online graduate degree program offers a level of flexibility that complements a busy lifestyle while also providing a quality education.

More than 71% of academic leaders rate online education as being “as good or better” than traditional education. The number of students taking online courses rises each year, and online graduate programs continue to grow and expand to meet demand.

Why Consider an Online Graduate Degree?

Online graduate degrees have emerged as a popular alternative to traditional programs. The flexibility of online schools allows students who would not be able to attend classes during the day earn a graduate degree. Students can work or care for their family during the day while pursuing their degree.

Types of Online Master’s Programs

Students seeking a graduate degree online can choose from several different formats. These include blended programs that combine remote learning and classroom participation, exclusively online programs, and programs where students take just a handful of supplemental courses online.

Fully Online Programs

Online participation amount? 100% of coursework is online
What is it? Coursework administered through online learning management system, no campus visits
Why consider it? Self-paced and highly flexible
Who benefits? Working professionals, parents, international students, and students with limited mobility

Blended Programs

Online participation amount? 30%+ of coursework is online
What is it? Online courses paired with on-campus, in-person classes
Why consider it? Flexible but with added in-person support and resources
Who benefits? Working students, single parents, and older students

Supplemental online courses

Online participation amount? 100% of coursework is online
What is it? Additional or supplemental courses, often free or for reduced price, and useful for learning or exploring a new topic before committing to a program
Why consider it? Low commitment and provides supplemental learning
Who benefits? Those seeking additional support or resources

 

Popular Online Master’s Programs

With the growing abundance of MOOCs and online courses, there are no limits to what students can learn online. However, most distance learners are enrolled in a narrow range of programs. According to a report on Online College Students in 2015 from The Learning House Inc, 30% of online students are enrolled in business administration, nursing, or computer science.

 

Business Administration

Popular Degrees Common Courses Average Time to Graduation
  • Master of Business Administration
  • Master of Accountancy
  • Master of Science in Finance or Management
  • Marketing
  • Business management
  • Business technology
  • Accounting
1.5 – 2.5 years

 

Nursing

Popular Degrees Common Courses Average Time to Graduation
  • Master of Science in Nursing
  • Master of Nursing
  • Master in Public Health
  • Dual degrees with MBA or MPA
  • Healthcare policy
  • Management
  • Wide range of courses based on specialty/specific degree
3 years

 

Computer Science

Popular Degrees Common Courses Average Time to Graduation
  • Master of Computer Science
  • Master’s in Information Technology
  • Mathematical foundations
  • Computer systems/networks
  • AI and machine learning
  • Software design
2 – 3 years

 

Education

Popular Degrees Common Courses Average Time to Graduation
  • Master of Arts in Teaching
  • Master of Education in Leadership and Management
  • Master of Education in School Counseling
  • Educational leadership
  • School management
  • Student counseling
  • Specialized concentrations in subject
1.5 – 2.5 years

 

Social Work

Popular Degrees Common Courses Average Time to Graduation
Master of Social Work
  • Mental health
  • family social work
  • Community organization and administration
  • Psychology/sociology
2 years

 

Choosing which online master’s program is right for you depends entirely upon your professional goals and academic interests.

Finding and Comparing Online Schools

Graduate education is a major investment, whether you choose to earn a degree online or on campus. There are many factors to consider before you commit to a particular higher learning institution or delivery format, such as the cost of tuition, the faculty’s reputation, the school’s accreditation status, and the resources (both on- and offline) available to students.

For-Profit vs Not-For-Profit Options

Colleges and universities that offer online graduate programs typically fall into one of two categories: for-profit or not-for-profit.

Many for-profit schools that offer only online and blended programs will not maintain a full campus. Instead, many operate small satellite campuses where students can find academic services and support from tutors, career counselors, financial aid officers, and IT specialists. Depending on the size of the school, these satellite campuses will also host conference rooms, computer labs, classrooms, and libraries for student use.

Graduate Students Enrolled in Distance Education Programs, 2014


Source: Learning House

Many not-for-profit brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, on the other hand, also offer web-based degrees. Although students complete their coursework online, they are encouraged to visit the campus to meet with faculty members or administrative staff, visit the library, use the computer lab, and access all other resources on-campus students use.

Accreditation for Online Graduate Programs

Accreditation is one of the most important factors to consider when comparing your academic options.

An accredited school has been evaluated by educational experts who have visited its campus or headquarters, met with faculty members, evaluated the curricular offerings, and weighed student outcomes against established standards of quality. All of this is done to determine whether or not the school is operating with its students’ best interests in mind. If a school has not been accredited or if its accreditation status is notably hard to track down, you may want to reconsider applying to that school.

Of the two types of accreditation — regional and national — regional is generally viewed as more reputable, and many colleges and universities that receive regional accreditation won’t accept credits from schools awarded national accreditation. For this reason, many for-profit online schools have opted to earn regional accreditation. Most schools also opt for institutional-level accreditation. Also, graduate-level programs in several fields of study can receive additional accreditation from separate organizations that evaluate specific subjects.

It’s important to avoid phony accreditation agencies (also known as accreditation mills). As a general rule, it’s best to only consider colleges and universities that have received accreditation from a recognized organization.

How much will your online degree cost?

For many students, the price of tuition is their primary concern when researching online master’s programs. There are several other factors to consider, however, including:

  • Number of required credits
  • Administrative fees
  • Application fees
  • Loan default rate

Did You Select the Most Inexpensive Institution/Program?
most-expensive-institution
Source: Learning House

Online master’s degree programs are often viewed as a cheaper alternative to brick-and-mortar education, but this is somewhat inaccurate. In order to predict the total costs of your graduate education, it’s important to weigh your desired program’s cost of tuition and administrative fees against other schools to determine whether or not it’s a strong investment.

Researching Online Programs

It’s important to evaluate the academic quality of your school, but just as crucial is the strength of your department. Graduate-level education should never be “easy.” A master’s or doctoral degree will likely consist of at least two years of rigorous studying, with plenty of research, papers, a dissertation or thesis, and in some cases, a capstone project. If an online school promises to award a master’s degree in “six months or less,” or otherwise makes a dubious claim about the relative ease of its academic offerings, then it is most likely a disreputable program (and perhaps an outright scam).

Curriculum is another important factor. Unless you are in a highly specialized program, your online master’s degree should closely mirror traditional programs in the same field. If you choose to attend a not-for-profit school with a brick-and-mortar campus, then it’s likely the online and offline programs will be very similar (if not identical). But with other blended and online programs, you’ll need to research which program’s academics best suit your academic interests and professional ambitions. As you compare programs, consider the following criteria:

  • Course requirements and sequences: Evaluate how core requirements and specialized degree options differ between online and offline programs in your field. If an online master’s program doesn’t offer the electives or research opportunities you consider essential, you can eliminate them.
  • Textbooks and other course materials: As you review curriculum lists, you’ll get a better idea of the breadth and quality of scholarship that a graduate program in your field should offer.
  • Credit systems and transferability: If you’ve already earned graduate credits in your field, don’t assume that you can apply them to a new program. Confirm this early in the application process.
  • Practical experience requirements: If practicums, residencies, capstone projects, or internships are required in your program, identify which schools can offer you the best research and networking resources to connect you with exciting opportunities.

Faculty

At some online schools with brick-and-mortar campuses, the faculty members who teach on-campus will also oversee the equivalent online courses. Many colleges and universities assign adjunct instructors to teach the bulk of the school’s online classes. These instructors typically have significant professional experience in their field of study, but have not earned a doctorate. During your pre-enrollment research, take some time to visit each school’s official website and browse the profiles of faculty members who teach courses in your field of study. According to the UC Davis Graduate Program Evaluation Metrics, the following factors are important for determining the strength and effectiveness of a given institution’s faculty:

  • Number of professors, associates, and/or adjunct instructors
  • Diversity of faculty (age, gender, race/ethnicity, etc)
  • Number/percentage of faculty members who serve as thesis/dissertation committee chairs
  • Number/percentage of faculty members who teach program courses
  • Awards and publications of each faculty member in your field
  • Financial support provided by the school for research purposes

Networking and Support

Communicating and collaborating with professors and classmates is a hallmark of higher education, and many online schools strive to promote social opportunities and support services online in lieu of a physical campus. Look for sponsored student affiliations, clubs, and other organizations that meet and conduct activities and events away from campus.

Review the alumni association from each of your target schools; these groups can help graduates as they enter the workforce by providing job leads, networking advice, and other tips for securing long-term employment.

Other important services can include:

  • Access to library archives (either an online or in-person)
  • Graduate student counseling
  • 24/7 tech support for hardware and software issues
  • Academic advising services
  • Graduate research opportunities

It’s also important to note whether or not the institution offers internships or other forms of on-the-job training that will expose you to working conditions in the field. Finally, each school’s student outcomes, including graduation and dropout rates, should be weighed against national averages to determine how it stacks up against other colleges.

Applying to Online Master’s Programs

Browsing online graduate programs and choosing one that best matches your educational needs will take time. However, it’s merely the first step in a long process that also includes submitting a formal application, securing financial aid, and enrolling in courses.

Application Process

Like undergraduate applications, graduate school applications will request your date of birth, address, phone number, email address, and other personal information. Many will also ask you to submit a written response to an essay prompt that discusses your experience and credentials in your field. In addition to the application form, graduate schools typically ask applicants to provide the following materials:

  • At least one letter of recommendation from a former professor or supervisor.
  • Test scores, which the testing agency will typically submit to the school directly.
  • Official copies of all undergraduate transcript(s) (keep in mind that most require a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0).
  • A personal essay or statement of intent regarding the program and how you hope it will apply to your post-graduate employment.
  • Current resume detailing your professional and academic background (be sure to emphasize and prioritize your relevant work experience).

Begin the application process up to six months in advance to ensure your materials are in on time. Even if you’re confident about your odds of acceptance at a particular school, be sure to submit applications to several institutions in the event you are not admitted to your first choice. Apply to at least one “safety school.”

Common graduate program tests

Depending on the area of study, online graduate programs will require one or more standardized test scores. Just like with the SATs or ACTs for undergraduate applications, many online graduate degree providers use these scores to compare student ability. A few of the tests often required include:

GRElogo The GRE is a standardized test used for most graduate degree subjects. Similar to the SATs for undergraduate application, the GRE includes sections in writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. Registration is $205 and the test is offered regularly. Most U.S. programs require the GRE, as do some international schools.
GMATlogo The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is a standardized test that focuses on quantitative, verbal, and integrated reasoning, along with writing. The test is used for business degree programs, such as the MBA, though it does not test your general business knowledge. The exam costs $250, takes 3.5 hours, and is given at test centers around the globe.
LSATlogo Used in the United States, Canada, and a number of other countries, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a required application piece at most juris doctor programs. The test covers reading comprehension, verbal reasoning, logic, and also includes an unscored writing section. The test is offered sparingly throughout the year and takes about half a day to complete. It is an important part of the law school process and most applicants spend significant time preparing for the exam. The price varies by country but typically costs less than $200.
MCATlogo The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, is the standardized test required for almost all U.S. and Canadian graduate medical school applications. The exam focuses on biological, physiological, chemical, psychological, and critical reasoning knowledge, among other subjects. The MCAT costs about $305 for registration and is offered throughout the year.

Financial Aid Opportunities

Although master’s degrees online are somewhat less expensive than brick-and-mortar programs, the costs still amount to thousands of dollars, and most students require some sort of assistance to fund their education. This section focuses on some of the financial aid opportunities available to students.

Federal Loans and Grants

Federal financial aid is a popular option for today’s students, thanks to fixed interest rates on loans and no repayment requirements for grants. While most federal aid is reserved for undergraduates, there are some options open to graduate students as well.

  • PLUS Loans are specifically for graduate and professional students. The amount awarded is determined by calculating the difference between the total cost of attendance (which varies by school) and any other financial aid you’ve received.
  • Perkins Loans offer low interest loans for students in financial need, but there are caps on the amounts awarded each year. Both PLUS and Perkins Loans are tax-deductible, and students who struggle to repay them may qualify for debt consolidation, deferment, or debt forgiveness.
  • There are a handful of federal grants offered to grad students. For example, TEACH Grants are available for students pursuing a degree in education. TEACH Grants award recipients up to $4,000 for each year of graduate-level studies.

Be aware that any student who enrolls in a master’s degree online program not accredited by one of the agencies recognized by the Department of Education will be ineligible for any type of federal financial aid.

Private Loans

Students who are ineligible for federal aid may seek financial support from private lenders, such as banks, credit unions, or the school they’re currently attending. However, private loans are generally viewed as riskier than federal loans because of differences in the way federal and private loans are awarded, administered, and repaid. Private lenders may require grad students to begin repaying loans while they are still enrolled in school and may have variable interest rates as high as 18%. In most cases, private loans cannot be consolidated, deferred, or forgiven.

Employer Reimbursement

Financing the continued education of promising employees is a growing trend among U.S. companies and organizations. If you are a full-time employee who wishes to enroll in a master’s degree online program, then you should speak to your supervisor about tuition reimbursement opportunities. Keep in mind that some employers will hand-pick the institution and program/format for you.

Scholarships

Scholarships are an excellent way to lower graduate school debt, and there are a range of awards to choose from. Some can finance a student’s total annual tuition, while others will provide a fixed amount for every year you are in school. It’s important for online grad students to review scholarship criteria very carefully, as some scholarships are exclusively awarded to students attending brick-and-mortar programs.

Get Educated Online College Scholarship
This scholarship awards students grants twice each year. Unlike most scholarships, this has few restrictions. An essay about the importance of your online learning is part of the application, along with a transcript.

  • Who’s Eligible? Any U.S. citizen enrolled in an accredited U.S. online graduate program with at least a 3.0 GPA is eligible.
  • Award Amount: A one-time award of $1,000
  • Deadline: spring and fall

Learn.org’s Online Master’s Degree Scholarship
Learn.org offers dozens of scholarships for students at online and traditional schools in a number of fields. The award is given based on merit and academic history, not financial need.

  • Who’s Eligible? Full- or part-time students enrolled in an accredited online school.
  • Award Amount: $500
  • Deadline: April 1

SHRM Scholarship
The Society for Human Resource Management provides an opportunity for scholarships, perfect for anyone looking to enhance their career with an online graduate degree in business or management. The criteria includes academic history, financial need, and SHRM involvement.

  • Who’s Eligible? SHRM members
  • Award Amount: Varies
  • Deadline: November 1

Graduate Scholarship for Teachers
A scholarship for continuing education teachers.

  • Who’s Eligible? Teachers pursuing graduate degrees
  • Award Amount: $5,000
  • Deadline: October 23

Penn State Alpha Sigma Lambda Scholarship
Students at Penn State’s massive online World Campus are eligible for this award, which is given out 12 times during the year.

  • Who’s Eligible? Students enrolled in select programs at Penn State
  • Award Amount: $2,700
  • Deadline: April 15

Additional Resources

Researching and Comparing Programs

Applying for Programs and Obtaining Financial Aid