A Guide to Online Master's Degrees

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A growing number of students are opting to earn their master’s degree online—either fully or partially. Learn more about online master's degrees and their particular benefits.

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A master’s degree can increase your subject knowledge in a specific area, expand your professional network, and add a valuable credential to your resume. It’s no wonder that it continues to be a popular choice among students seeking advanced education. During the 2018-2019 school year, the number of master’s degrees awarded increased by 20 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) [1]. 

Increasingly, students are opting to earn their master’s degree online—either fully or partially. A 2018 study from the Urban Institute found that 31 percent of students enrolled in master’s programs in 2016 earned an online degree, while 21 percent took some of their classes online [2]. 

Whether you opt to begin a master’s program immediately after earning your bachelor’s or first enter the workforce and gain some professional experience, an online master’s program can often be more flexible than one completed in-person. Let’s discuss more about online master’s degrees, including the types available, what it takes to apply, and how you can determine the best program for you.  

Types of master’s degrees available online

During the 2018-2019 school year, the majority of students earned a master’s degree in business, education, and the health professions [1]. Engineering and public administration/social services were also popular master’s degrees.

Sample job titleMaster’s degreeSalary
Social workerMaster of Social Work (MSW)$51,760
School administratorMaster of Education (MEd)$71,221
Health care administratorMaster of Health Care Administration (MHA)$77,528
Chemical engineerMaster of Chemical Engineering$93,453
Business consultantMaster of Business Administration (MBA)$114,083

At the master’s level, many students opt to enroll in programs that deepen their interest in a particular industry or career, much like those noted above. Thanks to coursework that spans both foundational subjects and more specialized areas of focus, they can gain advanced knowledge and skills to help them pursue certain roles after graduation. Some popular online master’s degrees include:

There are also a number of Master of Science and Master of Arts programs available online in subjects pertaining to the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. These include history, English, marketing, mathematics, biology, foreign languages, and psychology.

MA degrees and MS degrees can prepare you for a specific career path, such as economist or historian, but they also promote broader skills development (similar to a humanities major) so you can explore a range of careers after graduation.  

Learn more: Is an Online MBA Worth It?

Online master’s degree costs + time to graduation

An in-person master’s degree costs between $30,000 and $120,000, depending on whether you attend a public or private institution [3]. However, many online master’s degrees tend to cost less. For example, the University of Illinois' Master of Computer Science, available on Coursera, costs a total of $21,440.  

The length of your program will depend on what you choose to study and where you choose to study it, but a master’s degree takes between 18 months and two years to complete when you attend full-time. 

Learn more: How Long Does a Master’s Degree Take?

Opportunities to accelerate your online master’s degree 

Some online master’s programs, like the accelerated MSW, may offer options to speed up the time it takes you to earn your degree. If you’re interested in furthering the education you began as an undergraduate student without switching subjects, research whether there are graduate programs designed to apply some of your undergraduate training. 

Even without accelerated degree programs, many online master’s degrees are self-paced, meaning you can learn at your speed. If you’re comfortable taking more classes each semester, say four instead of three, you may be able to finish your degree in less time. 

The Master of Applied Data Science from the University of Michigan, available on Coursera, involves taking 10 courses total, which can be done in as little as 12 months. 

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Benefits of earning your master’s degree online 

Besides the lower costs and the opportunity to learn at your own pace, there are a number of other benefits you may experience from earning your master’s degree online. 

  • Work while going to school: Online master’s programs often provide flexible scheduling, which may make it easier to work full-time while earning your degree. Not only can that help offset some of your degree costs, but it also means you won’t pause your professional development as you focus on your education. 

  • More school choice: You will have to apply to each online master’s program that you’re considering, but when you choose a fully online program, you won’t have to relocate in order to attend. That means you’ll have more access to some of the top-rated schools in the country—and around the world. 

  • Network with your peers: Earning a master’s degree online no longer means having to forego the benefits of socializing and networking with your peers. A growing number of online master’s programs foster those kinds of connections using an array of virtual tools. 

  • Refine important workplace skills: Earning your bachelor’s online requires both self-discipline and time management thanks to the self-paced and flexible nature of learning. Both are important workplace skills, and earning your master’s online can help you strengthen your abilities in each area.   

Is an online master’s as valuable as an in-person master’s? 

In most cases, what you learn is more important than how you learn it, which is why it’s crucial that you find a program that aligns with your larger educational goals. Two helpful questions to pose as you research potential programs include: 

  • Will the coursework help me gain a broad understanding of the subject? 

  • Will I be able to deepen that knowledge through special electives or concentrations? 

These questions can help ensure that you apply for the best online master’s programs to meet your goals.  

Certain programs may be more hands-on than others, such as nursing or chemistry degrees. In those cases, how you learn may be important. Although you have the option of attending such master’s programs online—many of which are designed and equipped to help you succeed virtually—you may want to investigate how you will learn important procedures or experiments. Thanks to the growing demand for telehealth, earning your nursing degree online may make you more comfortable and familiar with technology in a way that can ultimately benefit your career.  

Selecting the best online master’s program for you 

Determining which online master’s program will be best for you means first figuring out why you want to earn your master’s degree. What do you want to achieve with your master's? Once you know why you want to pursue a graduate degree, spend time researching programs—both online and in-person—to figure out which makes the most sense for you and your resources. Let’s go over a few factors you can incorporate into your research. 

Accreditation

Attending an accredited college or university that offers online degrees can provide you with some assurance that you’re earning a quality education. It can also help you qualify for federal student aid via the annual FAFSA form. Each school should note its accreditation type (regional or national).  

Program focus

Many master’s programs list a number of concentrations that can deepen your area of expertise. For example, MPH students can concentrate in environmental health, global health, or epidemiology, or MBA students can concentrate in marketing, operations, or management. If you’re interested in learning about a niche area, look for programs that allow you to focus or concentrate in it. 

Flexibility

An online master’s degree should offer some amount of flexibility, but it can differ by school or program. Find out whether your courses will be asynchronous or synchronous, and how much you’ll be able to work at your own pace in order to determine the best approach for your schedule.  

Structure

Some online master’s degrees are entirely online, while others are hybrid (a mix of in-person and online courses). Depending on the structure you prefer, you should find master’s programs that will suit your needs. 

Learning technology

Each college or university employs different technology to administer online learning. It helps to know what type of learning management system (LMS) and other virtual tools you might expect to encounter.

Faculty credentials

Who ultimately teaches your courses is important. Spend time looking into each program’s online faculty—many of which may also teach in-person depending on the school. Think about how their expertise or academic qualifications will help contribute to your overall learning. 

Networking

Not all online master’s programs foster networking among peers, but if that’s something you’re interested in, then it’s best to find programs that provide that kind of opportunity. 

How to apply to an online master’s program 

Applying to an online master’s program is relatively similar to applying to an in-person master’s program. As you narrow the programs that most interest you, pay attention to their deadlines so that you have all of your materials gathered in time.

Each college or university may have different requirements, but in addition to the application you’ll complete for each program, you can expect to supply the following materials: 

Explore further 

Learn more about online master’s degrees on Coursera. Earn your graduate degree from a number of top-ranked universities in in-demand fields, such as nursing, population and health sciences, business analytics, business administration, and electrical engineering. What’s more, you can attend a virtual session to learn more about how each degree aligns with your larger goals. 

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Article Sources

1. US Department of Education . "COE Graduate Degree Fields, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/ctb." Accessed March 18, 2022.

2. Urban Institute. “The Rise of Master's Degrees, https://www.urban.org/research/publication/rise-masters-degrees." Accessed March 18, 2022.

3. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Master's Degree: 2022 Analysis,  https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree." Accessed March 18, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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