Most Affordable Online Master’s Degrees: Top Programs That Won’t Break the Bank

Looking to upgrade your degree? Discover the most affordable colleges for an online master’s degree and learn which master’s degree subjects are least likely to land you in debt.

most affordable masters

Some of you may have always planned on earning a master’s degree. For others, a new, better paying position at work may be your motivation. Either way, you know you’re ready to enroll, but you’re nervous about getting yourself into debt. With the average student debt for graduate school topping $71,000, finding an affordable online master’s degree can be crucial to your financial health and your personal happiness.

While earning a master’s degree online allows you to advance your career while maintaining full-time employment, tuition costs can still seem intimidating. Luckily for students eager to upgrade, there are affordable colleges and degrees out there that can help you reach your goals without draining your bank account. Find out which colleges are offering the most affordable online master’s degrees, discover which subjects tend to cost less, and get answers to the most frequently asked questions about earning your master’s degree online without overpaying.

What Makes an Online Master’s Degree Affordable?

When reviewing potential online master’s programs, multiple factors affect affordability. To be sure you understand all the costs and variables that come with an online master’s degree, check out our list below.

  • Tuition

    It may seem obvious, but look at the cost of tuition before any other factors. As an estimate, quickly multiply the number of required credits by the quoted rate to see if the program fits within your budget. If not, move on. By doing this exercise a few times, you’ll get a sense of the per-credit tuition you can afford and narrow your options. You’ll still have to pay for books and university fees, but tuition accounts for the costliest part of a master’s degree.

  • Average Debt Upon Graduation

    Some schools publish data showing the average amount of debt graduates leave school with, making it easier for you to get a sense of how much you may owe for that particular program. At Berea College, for instance, students graduated with an average debt of $7,468. Graduates of the University of North Texas at Dallas carried an average of $6,927 in debt. These figures can vary greatly based on both school and type of degree, so ask program administrators for the data if you can’t find it online.

  • Online vs. In-person

    Online degrees can help you save significantly across the full timeframe of your degree program. Tuition for online and in-person programs is often similar, but distance learners may skip some of the campus-based fees associated with activities, facilities, and parking. Completing your master’s degree online also allows you to avoid additional costs associated with transportation, eating out, lodging, and time lost commuting.

  • Public vs. Private

    As you review your options for an online master’s degree, you may notice quite a gap between tuition for public and private institutions. Because private colleges don’t receive state subsidies, students absorb the additional costs via higher tuition. Public schools receive state funding from taxes, making them less expensive for students who live in that state.

  • Grants & Scholarships

    Neither grants nor scholarships require repayment, making them a popular option for offsetting master’s degree costs. Finding a school that both offers this type of funding from its endowment and accepts grants and scholarships from outside organizations is critical to graduating without breaking the bank. Some grant and scholarship organizations may not provide funding to schools that don’t hold proper accreditation, so make sure you research the school fully before deciding on a program.

  • Payment Plans

    Paying for all your tuition and fees upfront each semester may seem impossible, however stretching those payments over several months may be more doable. If you want to avoid taking out loans and paying interest, look for a school that offers payment plans. Columbia University, for instance, offers a monthly payment plan to spread your costs more evenly.

25 Most Affordable Colleges for an Online Master’s Degree

If you want to find the most affordable schools offering online master’s programs, you’ve come to the right place. The table below looks at the 25 best options based on factors such as the number of online master’s degrees each school offers and the average debt graduates carry according to College Scorecard.

Rank College Average Debt Upon Graduation Number of Online Master’s Programs
#1 Missouri University of Science and Technology $17,117 45
#2 Concordia University—Chicago $19,994 105
#3 Eastern Illinois University $20,526 27
#4 University of Texas Rio Grande Valley $22,669 52
#5 University of Northern Iowa $23,093 52
#6 Stevens Institute of Technology $23,580 36
#7 New Mexico University—Main Campus $24,184 58
#8 Ball State University $24,527 61
#9 University of Central Arkansas $24,764 30
#10 University of Nebraska—Lincoln $25,090 68
#11 University of Alabama in Huntsville $25,264 33
#12 Iowa State University $25,421 91
#13 University of Central Missouri $25,441 42
#14 Rochester Institute of Technology $25,647 48
#15 Minnesota State University—Mankato $25,818 51
#16 SUNY College at Brockport $25,866 32
#17 Western Carolina University $26,571 31
#18 University of Massachusetts—Lowell $26,605 38
#19 Arkansas Tech University $26,733 26
#20 University of North Carolina at Greensboro $27,218 56
#21 Lamar University $27,733 30
#22 Missouri State University—Springfield $27,816 49
#23 Stephen F. Austin State University $27,960 38
#24 Tarleton State University $28,141 31
#25 University of Missouri—Columbia $28,342 84

Source: College Scorecard 2020

25 Most Affordable Online Master’s Degrees by Subject

The amount of debt you carry after graduating can vary substantially based on the subject you pursue. A master’s degree in forestry, for example, usually leads to far less debt than a master’s in instructional media design. Why? One reason is that different master’s programs require different numbers of credits, so those with lower numbers of required credits cost less. Review the following table to get an idea of what to expect.

Rank Master’s Degree Average Debt Upon Graduation
#1 Online Master’s in Forestry $11,530
#2 Online Master’s in Plant Sciences $17,191
#3 Online Master’s in Chemical Engineering $18,917
#4 Online Master’s in Agriculture $19,709
#5 Online Master’s in Zoology/Animal Biology $19,903
#6 Online Master’s in Bilingual, Multilingual, & Multicultural Studies $20,013
#7 Online Master’s in Engineering Science $20,500
#8 Online Master’s in Neurobiology & Neurosciences $23,940
#9 Online Master’s in Industrial Engineering $24,635
#10 Online Master’s in Electrical, Electronics, & Communications Engineering $24,735
#11 Online Master’s in Mathematics $25,232
#12 Online Master’s in Ethnic, Cultural Minority, Gender, & Group Studies $24,658
#13 Online Master’s in Physics $26,011
#14 Online Master’s in Parks, Recreation, & Leisure Studies $26,012
#15 Online Master’s in Curriculum & Instruction $26,596
#16 Online Master’s in Chemistry $26,625
#17 Online Master’s in Mechanical Engineering $26,787
#18 Online Master’s in Civil Engineering $27,528
#19 Online Master’s in Food Science & Technology $27,547
#20 Online Master’s in Teacher Education & Professional Development $27,710
#21 Online Master’s in Education $27,901
#22 Online Master’s in Religion Studies $28,116
#23 Online Master’s in Geological & Earth Sciences/Geosciences $28,883
#24 Online Master’s in Environmental/Environmental Health Engineering $29,976
#25 Online Master’s in Educational/Instructional Media Design $30,057

Source: College Scorecard 2020

FAQs on Affording an Online Master’s Degree

Most likely you still have questions about how to find the most affordable online master’s degree in your chosen subject. That’s normal. We’re here to provide carefully researched, expert guidance to help you make an informed decision about the online master’s degree you choose.

Will an online master’s degree cost less than a traditional program?

Will an online master’s degree cost less than a traditional program?

Are some master’s degree subjects more costly than others?

As the second table on this page demonstrates, some master’s degrees simply cost more. The biggest impact is the number of credits required for the master’s. For example, a master’s in natural resource stewardship requires 30 credits at Colorado State University, but a master’s in business administration requires 42 credits—40% more credits and 40% more cost. If you study a subject that includes laboratory components, it will probably cost more than one that doesn’t. Similarly, if you choose a program that requires in-person intensives, you’ll need to factor in costs such as travel, accommodations, and food while you’re away from home. Some programs may also lead to required certifications and/or exams, so factor those costs in as well.

Can I use financial aid to cover the cost of an online master’s degree?

Most colleges treat online and on-campus students the same as far as financial aid goes. If you attend a properly accredited school and program and you qualify for federal financial aid, that aid can be applied to your online program. If you’re unsure about the accreditation status of a prospective college, use the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs to check. Be sure to ask the school’s bursar or financial aid office about how different types of financial aid work at that particular school.

Find out more about paying for your online master’s degree with financial aid.

Are there scholarships for online master’s degrees?

Plenty of scholarships exist for online master’s degrees. While some funding sources previously excluded online programs from eligibility requirements, these days the majority include them. As with the previous financial aid question, it’s important to make sure your school holds proper accreditation, as this can influence whether or not the funder deems it acceptable.

Want to pay less in tuition? Discover the top scholarships for your online master’s degree.

What about employer tuition assistance?

Employer tuition assistance can greatly reduce the cost of your online master’s degree if your employer offers this benefit. Under current law, companies can provide up to $5,250 per year in tax-free tuition assistance, meaning the money you receive won’t be taxed as income. Even if your employer doesn’t advertise this benefit, consider speaking with your supervisor to see what’s possible.

Learn how to get your employer to pay for your online master’s degree.

Will the state my college is in impact the cost of an online master’s degree?

In short, it depends on the rules set by your chosen college. If you attend a private university, your location has no impact on tuition rates. If you attend a public school, it depends on the institution. The University of North Dakota, as an example, allows all online students to pay the same tuition rate, regardless of where they live. However other schools and states charge higher tuition to nonresidents since they don’t pay taxes in that state.

How does program length affect affordability?

Program length can affect affordability due to semester-based fees. While tuition rates generally remain the same, enrolling on a part-time basis means you’re in school for more semesters and therefore pay more in fees. Some programs may also offer a small tuition discount for full-time students.

What should I do if I have existing graduate credits?

If you previously enrolled in either a traditional or online master’s program but didn’t finish, try to find a new program that allows you to transfer those existing credits—especially if you’re pursuing the same degree. By successfully transferring existing credits, you’ll graduate earlier and not pay for those classes a second time.

Are there other types of discounts I should ask about?

While tuition discounts depend on individual schools, you should always ask if you qualify for any. Some schools, such as Wayne State University, provide tuition discounts for active military members and military veterans. Other schools, such as Sullivan University, have partnerships with professional associations, companies, and other types of organizations. If you’re an employee or member of a partner organization, you may qualify for a tuition discount.

How do federal loans differ at the graduate level?

If you need to borrow money to pay for your online master’s degree, start with the U.S. Department of Education. Two types of loans exist: subsidized and unsubsidized. Only undergraduate students qualify for subsidized loans, meaning the government pays the interest while you’re in school and for the first six months after graduating. As a graduate student, you will only qualify for unsubsidized loans, meaning interest starts accruing as soon as you take out the loan.

Cost-Saving Resources for Your Master’s Degree

  • 6 Ways to Financially Prepare for Grad School

    If you know you want to complete a master’s in the next few years, start preparing now with these money-saving tips.

  • 10 Ways to Save Money for Grad School

    Noodle.com shares these great ideas for getting your master’s degree without breaking the bank.

  • Graduate School Calculator

    Finaid offers several custom calculators to help you get a handle on how much you’re likely to spend on your master’s degree.

  • How to Embrace the Frugal Life

    The GradHack blog on Inside Higher Ed offers tips from a grad student on how she lived cheaply while in school.

  • How to Pay for a Master’s Degree: 6 Big Tips for Working Adults

    Franklin University put together this list of tips for busy students trying to save money on grad school.

  • How to Save Money and Be Frugal in Grad School

    The Art of Applying offers some easy and actionable ideas for saving here and there.

  • Tax Tips for Grad Students

    The American Psychological Association highlights some things you should understand about your taxes while pursuing your master’s degree online.

  • Thinking About Graduate School? Avoid These 4 Common Financial Mistakes

    Follow these tips to avoid costly mistakes when managing your finances.