How to Get a Master’s Degree Online
Master’s degrees are more popular—and maybe more necessary—than ever. According to the U.S. Census Bureau , the number of people with a master’s has doubled since 2000 and, on average, a person with an advanced degree earned 3.7 times as much as a high school dropout.
Of course, whether you get a good return on your education and if it results in higher earnings depends on a lot of things: the type of program, the field of study, job prospects. Graduate school is a big time commitment and can be costly, so you want to weigh all the pros and cons. That’s also partially why online graduate degrees have become more popular.
If you’re wondering, ‘Can I get a master’s degree online?’ The answer is: yes, you can. Over 50% of master’s students got their degree either entirely online, also known as distance learning, or partially online.
Online classes can be an effective way to advance your education on your own schedule—and maybe save yourself some money. Graduate-level classes are no different.
Getting a Master’s Degree Online
If you’re a busy professional, then an online master’s degree can have a number of benefits—from studying for your dream career on your own schedule to the potential for higher earnings—but there are also drawbacks. As you weigh whether getting an online graduate degree makes sense for you, here are some pros and cons to consider.
Pros of Online Master’s
One of the biggest benefits of getting a master’s degree online is the flexibility. Among students enrolled in an online MBA program, according to US News & World Report , the average age was 33 and about 91% of them were also working full-time. If you’re already working or have other commitments, then being able to take classes on your own schedule can help you knock out the degree when it works for you.
In addition to being able to take classes when you want, you may also be able to get through the courses faster. While traditional programs may only offer quarter- or semester-long classes, many online degrees also have shorter timeframes available, like eight weeks.
All of that can potentially add up to lower costs. If you’re able to finish the classes faster and at a lower credit fee, then you could spend less overall to get your degree. Plus, you might be able to save on room and board. According to a study done by Potomac College , the average cost of a traditional undergrad degree is around $85,000, online it totals just $30,000.
However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes online programs can actually cost more than their brick-and-mortar equivalents—and you want to be careful you’re paying for a program that will be worth your time and money.
Cons of Online Master’s
One of the biggest challenges to getting a master’s degree online is knowing which online programs are worthwhile and will have the biggest return on your investment. You may need to do research to be sure you’re not paying for a degree that won’t pay off.
Even at accredited and well-respected programs, not every degree or field of study is available online. The majority of students taking classes online are studying health-related or business courses.
Once you find a program that meets your needs, there are still some challenges to online studying or distance learning. If you want to get a master’s degree online, it’s important to be self-motivated.
While you can interact with your professors or, at times, set up video call sessions, there is less face-to-face time with your instructor and your classmates. Not everyone will take attendance or force you to study. You’ll have to do it on your own.
Applying for a Master’s Degree Online
Applying to grad school, whether online or in a traditional classroom, can either be complicated or fairly straightforward depending on how you approach it.
Applying to get a master’s degree online is pretty similar to applying for a traditional master’s; there may be applications, tests, personal statements, and admissions decisions. In both cases, it may make sense to create a timeline and checklist to help you work through the steps.
Comparing schools and deciding what program is best for you could be a good first step.
Then creating a timeline of when applications are due and what tests are required, like the GRE, can help keep dates straight.
Look into what each of the schools requires, so you can plan ahead to study for the GRE or work on your personal statement.
Many master’s degree applications require a personal statement—a kind of written essay about why you want to do this program specifically, what you bring to it, and what you hope to get out of it. Spending time working on your personal statement might help your application stand out.
While the perception may be that online master’s degrees are easier, the reality is the application process is typically similar. In fact, many traditional graduate schools also offer online courses and degrees.
They both require an application with your educational and career history, some kind of written statement or essay, test scores (such as the GRE, GMAT for business school, or LSAT for law school—not all programs require these), and potentially additional information or interviews.
Getting a Master’s Degree Online
If you want to get a master’s degree online, there are a few things to consider and research before starting.
What Online Master’s Programs Are Available?
Not every program is offered online. As mentioned above, the most popular online programs are business or MBA degrees.
Criminal justice and finance classes are also popular. Arizona State University, which has one of the more comprehensive online programs out of a major university, has 37 online master’s degree programs —but not everything can be studied remotely. Find out if what you want to study is available online.
Which Online Degrees Are Legitimate?
You also will want to weigh where the master’s comes from. If it’s not an accredited university (like Title IV schools), it might be harder to get financial aid and federal loans. Unfairly or not, you may also come against the perception that online master’s degrees aren’t as legitimate.
Researching the schools and programs is a good place to start. Places like U.S. News & World Report release lists of the top online graduate schools in different degree areas at least annually.
How Do I Study for an Online Master’s?
Once you’re in an online master’s program, you still have to study and get your degree. Having flexibility is good and bad. You’re probably busy and trying to fit in your degree, so making a written class schedule for yourself can be a good place to start.
Plot out times to take classes, study, catch up on notes, or even schedule video sessions with your instructor. If you’re someone who needs other people to stay motivated, you might also want to make informal study groups, even if they’re virtual, so you can answer each other’s questions.
Financing an Online Master’s Degree
Paying for grad school might seem like the biggest challenge to getting your degree. And if you already have student loan debt from undergrad, then taking on more loans could feel overwhelming too.
There are some ways, though, to pay for a master’s degree without loans. You might be able to plan ahead and save up money to pay for your master’s. (You can plan it into your budget and financial goals.) There are also grants and scholarships for specific fields of study, so you might want to look into private scholarships too.
Some employers also offer tuition reimbursement, if you’re already working full-time and looking to get an online master’s degree related to your field of work. And, in some cases, you may be able to get work-study or teaching assistant positions—though those are less common with online programs.
Like undergrads, the first step for graduate students should be filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSAⓇ). This will give the school a place to start for a financial aid package—any grants or loans—and a FAFSA is required to qualify for any federal loans or grants, too.
Federal loans and grants should still apply to online master’s degree if they’re from accredited universities. (You can check out all the federal aid requirements at the Federal Student Aid website .)
Once you have a federal financial aid package, then you can plan what amount will be covered by any scholarships, tuition reimbursement, or work. If it doesn’t cover the whole cost of the degree, then you may want to consider additional student loans.
If you already have student loans for your undergraduate degree, then you also may want to look into refinancing.
Refinancing existing student loans could save you money over the long run with a lower interest rate or better loan terms. That said, it is important to keep in mind that refinancing may mean losing federal loan repayment benefits, like federal student loan forgiveness programs .
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