A master’s degree is a graduate level degree that typically takes two years to complete. Accelerated online master’s degree programs may be completed in as little as a year. Many students enroll in master’s programs immediately after earning a bachelor’s degree. Students who choose to earn a master’s degree typically want to build on their existing career specialties or return to college to change careers. Master’s degrees have a positive impact on long-term career success and earning power.
For this year’s college rankings, our analysts carefully reviewed statistical data from multiple sources for more than 7,500 postsecondary institutions so that you could easily evaluate schools based on what matters most to you. For each school, we applied the eligibility criteria outlined below, then ranked schools and programs based on four ranking factors.
Eligibility Criteria for All Postsecondary Institutions:
Must be a not-for-profit institution
Must be regionally or nationally accredited
Must offer at least one online program1
Must be located in a state (schools in US territories and Washington DC were not considered)
Dozens of data points were used to calculate a weighted score for four ranking factors: quality, affordability, flexibility and program (in order of significance). To determine quality, which was the most important consideration for all AS Online rankings, the most impactful data points were acceptance and graduation rates; for affordability, tuition2 and grants; for flexibility, part-time enrollment offerings; and for program, degrees conferred in that program area.
Some of our nursing program rankings used exam pass rates from NCLEX
How to Read Our Rankings Tool:
A dash indicates IPEDS data was not available
Annual in-state tuition is displayed unless stated otherwise
1 Our Best Vocational Programs rankings included data for both online and campus programs.
2 Both annual in-state and out-of-state tuition rates were used in our methodology; however, our Rankings Tool currently only displays annual in-state rates.
After completing an undergraduate degree, many students fill up their schedules with new work opportunities, making it difficult to return to school to earn a master’s degree. However, by studying at a school that offers their degree in an entirely online format, students are able to progress through their program at a comfortable pace, without interrupting any non-curricular scheduling constraints that may prevent them from attending class in-person. We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of the best online master’s programs available, basing our findings on the school’s affordability, available student services, and class sizes. Check out our rankings list for 2018 to find a top online master’s program.
The Master’s of Science, Master’s of Arts, Master’s of Business Administration and Master’s of Fine Arts are the most common degrees offered at this level. Coursework can include group seminars, lectures, independent research and internships. Online degree programs are well-suited for students who can’t attend traditional classes. Since much of the degree work involves independent study and research, the curriculum lends itself to distance learning.
Some master’s degree programs, such as a Master’s of Fine Arts, are considered terminal degrees, which means it’s the highest degree level you can achieve in that field. Others provide an academic stepping stone to doctoral degree programs.
Master’s degree coursework is more strenuous and advanced in academic depth and focus than classes at the undergraduate level. The following table shows the complexity and range of courses students take toward completing their graduate degree:
Graduate students and faculty review current scholarship and research in personal and social psychological topics. Varies by semester. Requires consent of the instructor.
Seminar in International Finance
Financial management principles specific to engagements with international monetary systems, foreign trade, working capital, exchange rates, investments, and taxation.
Advanced Topics in Animation
Theoretical and practical applications of computer animation technology, including aspects of kinematics, motion capture, and key framing. Laboratory component.
Air Pollution Suppression Engineering
Engineering studies of theory and design of pollution reduction technology as applied in fossil fuel power generation or industrial facilities.
Physical Therapy: Biomechanics of Abnormal Movement
A study of dynamics and statics evidenced in abnormal multi-joint movement along with a practical application of remedial interventions. Laboratory/lecture.
Principles of Healthcare Human Resource Management
Extensive use of software applications and research into theories and practices of recruitment, employee development and retention, personnel management, productivity assessment and organizational leadership.
Criminal Justice Seminar: Race, Gender, and Social Classes
The major influences that legal decisions, cultural influences, gender, and class distinctions have on training, policy, law enforcement, and institutionalization.
Advanced Nursing: Neonatal Management
Focus on high risk, acutely and gravely ill infants. Emphasis on assessment, stabilization and intervention in a patient and family centered setting.
Master’s Degrees Earning Potential
The proof is in the paycheck. A 2014 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that professionals in management, business and financial operations took home $1,231 in median weekly earnings. These wages excelled over the median weekly salaries of $504 for service occupations and $685 for workers in sales. The BLS study also cited weekly 2014 median earnings by educational attainment for employees ages 25 or older:
Many students enroll directly in master’s degree programs upon graduation from their bachelor’s degree institutions. Others return to college after they have worked a while in a career field where promotion and higher earnings depend upon graduate training. Students may also pursue a master’s degree to gain skills and advanced training to facilitate an entire career change. For example, a mid-level manager might enroll in an online MBA degree program to become a business consultant.
Here is a sampling of careers where earning a master’s degree is either required or can prove advantageous for advancement:
Education: Post-secondary teachers, school principals and administrators, corporate trainers and researchers.
Business/Management: Human resource administrators, financial managers, technology officers, entrepreneurs, personal investment consultants.
Communications: Advertising and public relations account executives, internal communications editors, market research specialists.
Social sciences: Marriage and family therapists, substance abuse counselors, occupational therapists, social workers.
Technology and engineering: Software, network or systems engineers, mobile application developers, petroleum engineers, cloud architects, IT consultants, systems analysts, civil engineers.
How Online Master’s Degree Programs Work
Graduate students today have the opportunity to complete a master’s degree without ever setting foot on a college campus. Traditional, accredited degree-conferring colleges and universities now offer comprehensive online master’s degree programs. Students also have an option of perusing their master’s degrees from fully accredited, for-profit online schools, colleges, and universities.
Students who have never worked online toward a college degree will soon realize that self-discipline is the key to success in a virtual classroom. While courses are self-paced, they have deadlines for completing assignments or class modules and they establish firm dates for taking online exams. Online class sessions are delivered via the college’s web-interface, employing tools such as email, digital bulletin boards, chat sessions, video conference software, conference calls, and real-time interactive multi-media. Assignments, class notes, lectures and other materials are archived so students can view them on a 24/7 basis. There are graduate programs in which the college provides students with laptops. In most cases, a home or work computer/tablet with internet access is all students need to study online.
Online Learning Q&A
As an online graduate student, how will I meet research requirements when I’m never on campus?
A great amount of college research is done online today, whether a student is seated in a library or at home. Online colleges also provide 24/7 access to key databases and subject-matter libraries.
What are the technical requirements for attending classes online?
Online graduate schools provide secure, web-based access to classes through a graphical dashboard. Students that already know how to use email, chat tools, and multimedia players have few problems with the technology. Tech support and tutorials are readily available.
How does an instructor maintain decorum in an online class?
Online colleges establish course “netiquette”, including provisions against flaming, harassment, and posting about topics unrelated to class materials. Violators can be dropped from the course or, in certain instances, from the college.
Is the academic quality the same for online and traditional degree programs?
If the school or program is accredited, students can rest easy. Colleges strive to appoint online faculty members with the experience and credentials to teach traditional on-campus graduate courses.
How are tests and written exams taken online?
When students enroll, they receive a syllabus that identifies testing dates and times. In most cases, graduate midterms or finals are timed and once a student begins the exam, the clock starts ticking.
Master’s Degree Accreditation
Accreditation is a voluntary review of colleges and programs that let students and employers know that the schools meet or exceed requirements for providing quality academic programs and faculties. According to The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, accrediting agencies must be approved by the United States Department of Education. There are 19 recognized organizations that offer institution-wide accreditation and 60 agencies that award programmatic accreditations for special departments. Six regional accreditation agencies are the ones that typically award accreditations for master’s degree-conferring schools, colleges and universities.
To gain accreditation, schools first conduct internal assessments of their programs, their faculty and academic quality against standardized performance measurements. That review is followed by a campus visit by an accreditation agency. Finally, the agency offers its independent analysis and grants accreditation if the institution is worthy. Routine follow-up assessments help the school maintain accreditation as well as measure academic improvements. Whether a school is accredited can make a difference in how an employer views a graduate degree. Only accredited institutions can participate in Federal student aid programs such as grants, loans and fellowships.