An online master’s degree is a convenient option for students who wish to continue their education after completing a four-year bachelor’s program. The number of master’s degree recipients has greatly increased in recent years — roughly 5,800 men and women earned a master’s in 1984, and by 2014, this number had risen to more than 754,500. A recent article by The American Interest noted that 8% of the U.S. population currently holds a master’s degree — the same percentile that held a bachelor’s in the 1960s. Thanks to a widespread number of web-based programs, today’s master’s students can study and earn a degree from home.
Most master’s degree online programs require a commitment of two years or less. The curriculum builds on the foundational knowledge and skills of undergraduate studies while introducing more advanced concepts. Other areas of emphasis include academic research, analysis, and theoretical applications. Many programs require on-site practicum sessions, and may culminate in a capstone project or master’s thesis. Master’s degrees may carry general titles related to the field of study, such as master of arts (MA), master of science (MS), or master of education (ME) degrees.
Other degrees carry a more specific title, including master of business administration (MBA), master of public administration (MPA), master of social work (MSW), and master of fine arts (MFA). Master’s degree programs often include specializations in the given field of study.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. employees with a master’s degree earned a median weekly salary of $1,341 in 2015. In contrast, bachelor’s and associate degree-holders made $1,137 and $798 per week, respectively. At 2.4%, the employment rate for master’s graduates still indicates growth.
This guide outlines the costs and benefits of earning a master’s degree online. We’ve also included money-saving strategies for students and graduates and a list of the top schools for affordable master’s degree online programs.
What Can You Do With an Online Master’s Degree?Students who graduate with a master’s degree online enjoy higher salaries, lower unemployment rates, and a higher number of employment opportunities compared to their bachelor’s degree-holding counterparts. According to current data from PayScale, master’s graduates working in healthcare and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields earned the highest salaries after 10 years on the job. Master’s degree-earners in the top-ranked field, petroleum engineering, earned 74% more than bachelor’s degree-holders at the mid-career mark. We’ve listed the top five areas of employment in terms of mid-career salary (with a three-way tie in fifth place), as well as some specific occupations a master’s graduate may pursue in these fields.
7 Highest Paying Jobs for People With a Master’s Degree
Dollars and CentsNext we’ll explore some of the costs that students face when they earn an online master’s degree. Even the cheapest online master’s degree programs represent an investment of thousands of dollars. Most master’s programs require a commitment of two years or less. While each master’s curriculum will vary wildly by subject and institution, most run between 30 and 45 credit hours; most master’s-level courses are three credits, meaning 10 or more individual courses are usually required for completion. Prior to official application, prospective grad students are encouraged to calculate the overall cost-per-credit-hour of different programs to determine the most affordable master’s degree online options. Other costs associated with earning an online master’s degree are laid out below.
|Estimated Maximum per Semester$584||Estimated Minimum per SemesterFree|
|Even for students who attend the cheapest master’s degree online programs, books represent a significant expense. According to the National Association of College Stores, the average student spends between $655 and $1,168 per year on books and materials. Students can reduce these costs by purchasing used books at a discounted rate. Electronic books are another, more affordable option for cost-minded students.||Most campus libraries allow registered students to check out textbooks used in current courses; with the exception of late charges, this option is free. Borrowing books and materials from friends, roommates, or peers who have already completed certain courses is another cost-effective strategy.|
|Estimated Maximum per Month$150||Estimated Minimum per MonthFree|
|Web users can reduce monthly costs by bundling their Internet with phone and/or cable TV services. In some locations, an Internet and cable TV package is cheaper than lone Internet service. Local Internet providers are usually a more affordable option than national companies.||Students who choose not to purchase a monthly Internet service plan can surf the web for free at their school’s library and on-campus computer labs. Coffee shops, cafes, bakeries, and other casual dining establishments often provide complimentary Wi-Fi to paying customers, as well.|
|Estimated Maximum per Month$1,500||Estimated Minimum per MonthFree|
|Renting a house or apartment amounts to a significant investment; even units available at discounted student-friendly rates can cost hundreds of dollars per month. While dorms tend to be more expensive than apartments strictly in terms of monthly rent, students who live in on-campus housing receive other perks, like free utilities and cable connections.||Many students live at home or with relatives during the course of their online master’s degree program; depending on individual arrangements, this option is usually free-of-charge or much cheaper than living in an apartment or dorm. Students can also cut down on monthly rent, utilities, and bills by living in a house with multiple roommates.|
|Estimated Maximum per Month$725||Estimated Minimum per Month$15|
|Students who choose to drive their personal vehicle to campus usually need to purchase a parking permit; coupled with gas expenses, this choice can be spendy. Carpooling with other students or faculty members will cut down on both of these costs. Discounted bus or train tickets are often available for registered students.||Some students choose to live on or near their campus, allowing them to walk or bike to school every day. Another cost-effective option is pursue a master’s degree online. Distance learners may be required to occasionally visit their school’s campus, but otherwise they will be able to study and take exams from the comfort of their own homes.|
|Estimated Maximum per Semester$200||Estimated Minimum per Month$0|
|Emergencies happen, and students are strongly urged to maintain savings as a cushion in case they must pay for a medical procedure, mechanical services, or other sudden costs. Comprehensive insurance coverage can help cut down on emergency health- and auto-related expenses; most colleges and universities offer relatively cheap insurance plans for registered students.||Students who do not maintain an emergency savings fund are putting themselves at major financial risk down the road. Even students with insurance coverage will have to pay out-of-pocket expenses for medical and automotive issues; the maximum amount they will be forced to cover is known as their deductible.|
The Quickest, Cheapest Path to a Master’s Degree
|Why it’s Important||Most online master’s degree programs only admit candidates who have received a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent four-year credential) from an accredited college or university; furthermore, a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher and completion of certain prerequisite courses is also often required for acceptance into a master’s program. Bachelor’s programs cover foundational knowledge and skills needed to succeed at the graduate level. Undergraduate studies also expose individuals to the same course schedules and learning environments they will encounter at the master’s level.|
According to NCES data, the average bachelor’s student paid $21,728 to attend a four-year program during the 2014-15 academic year. This amount includes tuition, administrative fees, and room-and-board rates for undergraduate students enrolled full-time. Those who pursued a bachelor’s degree at public colleges and universities paid an average of $25,409 for these expenses; students at community colleges, technical colleges, and other two-year institutions paid $10,153 for the same items.
Additionally, undergraduate must pay for textbooks and other course materials every semester or quarter; the average student paid $655 for books and materials during the 2013-14 academic year. Other costs include utilities and other monthly bills, clothing, transportation, and food (for students who don’t have meal plans included in their room and board costs). Roughly two-thirds of students fully or partially finance their undergraduate education using some form of financial aid; according to CollegeBoard, 57% of this aid takes the form of grants and scholarships, while federal loans represent 34%.
|Ways to Reduce Cost||
Choosing Your Master's Program and Finding the Most Affordable School
|Why it’s Important||Like the bachelor’s, a master’s degree represents a significant investment of time and personal finances. For this reason, individuals must determine if a master’s degree is necessary in order to earn a strong return on their investment (ROI). Forbes notes that master’s degrees tend to have a lower ROI in fields like criminal justice, English, curriculum and instruction, and higher education. By comparing different program providers, master’s-seekers can also weigh the individual costs of tuition, course materials, housing, and other expenses in order to determine the cheapest master’s degree online options.|
According to 2016 data from the NCES, the average full-time graduate student paid $17,385 in annual tuition during the 2014-15 academic year.
The cost of attending a master’s program at a public college or university was $10,979 per year, while students at nonprofit and for-profit private institutions paid $25,171 and $14,265 in annual tuition, respectively. In addition to tuition, master’s students will pay the same costs as their undergraduate counterparts: administrative fees, course materials, room-and-board, monthly bills, and transportation.
Due to these significant costs, prospective graduate students should seek out the cheapest online master’s degree programs by researching a wide range of options. The process of choosing a suitable program will likely require a significant time investment. Some students also choose to visit nearby campuses in order to inquire about program expenses, and these trips may incur transportation costs.
|Ways to Reduce Cost||
|Why it’s Important||Accredited online master’s degree programs almost always require applicants to submit standardized test scores prior to admission. Most graduate programs accept scores from the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE); this test covers different areas of English, mathematics, and writing. Some master’s-level fields require scores from subject-specific exams; these include the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) for MBA-seekers, the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) for aspiring doctors, and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for students pursuing legal careers. Master’s programs generally maintain a minimum score requirement for standardized tests, as well.|
Admission exams for master’s programs can be costly. The GRE costs $195 per student for each sitting. Fees for other admission exams include $250 for the GMAT, $175 for the LSAT and $305 for the MCAT.
Exam-takers living outside the United States may pay more to sit for their test; for example, individuals outside the U.S. must pay $190 to sit for the GRE. Students are strongly encouraged to invest in study guides, practice tests, and other materials to help them prepare for the exams; online shoppers can obtain a thorough study guide for $20 to $25. Some receive additional support through exam prep courses, which are often offered on college campuses. Other costs include charges for late registration and score reports that are sent to college admissions officers. Transportation may also incur significant expenses for the exam-taker, depending on his or her proximity to the nearest testing site.
|Ways to Reduce Cost||
|Why it’s Important||A completed application is universally required for admission into an accredited master’s program. Most applications include personal information, admissions exam scores, undergraduate transcripts, and at least one personal essay. Letters of recommendation from employers and/or former teachers may also be requested. Most of today’s schools allow candidates to submit their applications online.|
|Associated Costs||U.S. News & World Report recently released a list of the colleges and universities that charge the most for submitting official applications. Stanford University topped the list at $90, and the remaining 38 schools range from $75 to $85 per application. Ordering official transcripts and admissions exam scores will usually incur fees, as well.|
|Ways to Reduce Cost||
Maximum Credit Loads
|Why it’s Important||Full-time graduate students who take the maximum credit load each semester will finish their degree program ahead of schedule, allowing them to not only reduce fees associated with higher education but also potentially enter the job market quickly. Furthermore, many colleges and universities issue a tuition “cap” on course credit hours. Students who exceed this cap will not have to pay for the additional credit hours. Typically, schools that use this system cap credit hours at 12 per semester.|
|Associated Costs||Since most degree-granting institutions bill students per credit hour, overall tuition for a master’s program will remain the same regardless of credit load per semester.|
Living Frugally While in School
|Why it’s Important||Frugal living is crucial for college students at all degree levels, even for those who enroll in cheap master’s degree online programs. This is especially true at the graduate level; master’s degree programs are typically quite demanding, and many students struggle to balance course commitments with full-time employment. Students can create — and follow — a weekly or monthly budget in order to stay on top of rent, bills, food, and other everyday costs. Budgeting also enables students to participate in occasional social activities and, if possible, set aside money for long-term savings.|
|Ways to Reduce Cost||
Graduating and Beyond
|Why it’s Important||Students who are pursuing a master’s degree should begin researching job opportunities prior to graduation to ensure that they’ll be able to start working as soon as possible. This is especially true of students who receive financial aid; monetary support usually ends once a student has completed their program, and those who receive student loans are required to start paying them back within months of receiving their degree. Students can also prepare for the job market by updating their resume, attending career fairs, and building a professional network that includes professors and peers.|
|Associated Costs||Many graduates must relocate to a different city/state in order to secure employment, and this will incur moving and resettlement costs. Students who can afford to do so may apply to join a professional organization related to their major. Although these organizations charge monthly or annual membership fees, they also provide leads on job openings, interview tips, and other resources for employment seekers.|
|Ways to Reduce Cost||
Financial Aid for Graduate Students
Most students — even those enrolled in cheap online master’s degree programs — seek out financial aid to help fund their education. Three types of federal loans are available to graduate students. Unsubsidized loans allow grad students to borrow as much as $20,500 each academic year; subsidized loans are reserved for undergraduates. Additionally, master’s students can apply for Federal PLUS Loans to pay for additional school costs not covered under the unsubsidized loans. Federal Perkins Loans are offered to students at all academic levels who demonstrate significant financial need.
The federal government also provides two different forms of grant funding for graduate students pursuing degrees in education. The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant awards up to $4,000 per year for students who complete a series of required courses and agree to teach at a school serving low-income students for at least four years after graduation. Federal Pell Grants are also available to students enrolled in post-baccalaureate teacher certification programs. TEACH and Pell Grants do not need to be paid pack. Students must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to qualify for federal loans or grants.
In addition to federal opportunities, master’s students may qualify for different grants or scholarships available through their school. These awards are often reserved for master’s students pursuing degrees in specific academic fields. As part of their program research process, students should look into the institutional scholarship and grant offerings at different schools. Scholarships and grants are widely available through private organizations and companies as well.
Transitioning to a PhD or DoctorateWhile most master’s degree are designed to prepare graduates for entry into the workforce, many choose to continue their education even further by pursuing a PhD or doctorate degree. Most doctoral programs are two to three years in length, and revolve around a dissertation, which is a research-based paper on a topic related to the student’s area of study. Dissertations are usually at least 150 pages in length. As a result, most PhD and doctorate students spend more time in libraries and labs than classrooms. Many students who earn a doctoral degree go on to professorial roles at colleges and universities. Other common career paths for PhD and doctorate-earners include psychology, medicine and STEM-related fields.
Not surprisingly, a doctoral degree provides even greater job stability than a master’s; the BLS notes a 1.7% unemployment rate for PhD and doctorate recipients, and these individuals earned a median weekly salary of $1,623 in 2015. However, these degrees are not required for most professions and the additional expenses of a PhD or doctorate may ultimately outweigh the salary gains. Like with a master’s degree program, students can perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine if a doctoral program will provide a favorable ROI in the long run.
The following data table shows mid-career salaries in the five most lucrative fields for PhD/doctorate-earners, as well as the earnings for master’s degree recipients in the same profession.
|Field||Master’s Pay||PhD/Doctorate Pay|
|Electrical & Computer Engineering||$126,000||$142,000|
Affordable Schools With Online Master’s Programs
Grace School of Theology
|Value Score 9.41||
Based just outside of Houston in Conroe, Texas and founded in 2002, Grace is one of the newest Christian colleges in the country. Accordingly, the school is a strong proponent of online education, offering four online master’s degrees programs to students both in Texas and around the country: a master of ministry, a master of arts in biblical studies, a master of divinity, and a master of theology. The school’s master’s programs are designed for students already working in ministry, and a flexible online format makes it easy to balance work and academics. Classes are available in both synchronous and asynchronous formats, allowing students to stream lectures live or view course material whenever they have time. Grace’s virtual classroom environment also allows for live video communication and collaboration with other students and faculty.
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University of West Georgia
|Value Score 9.15||
Founded in 1906, UWG currently serves more than 13,000 students from its campus in Carrollton, Georgia. The college is consistently ranked as one of the best in the Southeast, and UWG has produced several notable alumni in the arts, media, politics, and sports, including country singer Zac Brown and Georgia Poet Laureate David Bottoms. The school offers several affordable master’s programs online, ranging from applied computer science and media instructional technology to music education and nursing. Both state residents and non-residents pay the same cheap tuition rate, making UWG a smart choice for students regardless of location. Nontraditional adult students over the age of 25 save money by participating in the school’s Credit by Prior Learning program, which allows students to document relevant professional experience in a portfolio and receive academic credit. Students may also be able to gain credit through departmental exams in various academic subjects.
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Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
|Value Score 9.12||
SEBTS was founded by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1950, with the goal of offering Christian-centered education to students on the East Coast. The school’s campus in Wake Forest, North Carolina serves over 3,400 students, who also have access to a range of online programs. The college offers four fully online master’s degrees programs: master of divinity, master of arts (Christian studies), master of arts in intercultural studies, and master of arts in church planting. The master of divinity is the school’s most popular graduate degree program, providing students with an advanced overview of Christian history, biblical studies, theology, and applied ministry. SEBTS recommends online students pursue the Christian ministry track, which offers the largest selection of online elective courses. While the generalized master of divinity program requires 81 total credits, the other degrees cover specialized topics and require far fewer course hours, making it easier for students to graduate faster.
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Fort Hays State University
|Value Score 9.05||
One of the largest state colleges in Kansas, FHSU serves around 14,000 students, nearly half of them enrolled in distance education programs. The school has developed its virtual college over more than two decades, and today it offers some of the most respected and affordable online degrees in the country. Students can choose from several online master’s degrees programs, including special education, business administration, liberal studies, history, and nursing education. All degrees are available fully online, except for counseling and school psychology, which require students to visit campus occasionally for intensive workshops. FHSU students receive individualized attention from personal academic advisers, who help with course planning, class scheduling, and professional preparation. Cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit among students, FHSU is particularly focused on career preparation, and this results in a body of highly successful alumni -- according to the school, over 95% of students find employment quickly after graduation.
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Valdosta State University
|Value Score 9.01||
Based in Valdosta, Georgia, VSU is one of four comprehensive schools in the University System of Georgia, serving more than 11,000 students from all around the state. The college is a major center of regional education, but it also attracted students from around the country, and VSU boasts notable alumni such as CNN media personality Nancy Grace. VSU students can select online master’s degrees programs ranging from healthcare administration and business to criminal justice and library science. The college also offers a wide selection of education degrees, including curriculum and instruction, early childhood education, and education leadership. Students can pursue hybrid programs, combining online and campus courses, in areas such as social work, nursing, and public administration. For students taking 95% or more of their courses online, VSU offers a special eTuition rate that remains the same regardless of state residence. Students who take their courses entirely online are also exempt from most student fees, allowing them to save even further on tuition.
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