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

Contrary to what you might have heard, upgrading your bachelor’s degree to a master’s doesn’t have to break the bank. 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

If you’ve always wanted to pursue a master’s degree or are considering it for career advancement, you may be concerned about student debt. With the average student loan debt for master’s degree holders hovering around $66,000, feeling apprehensive is understandable. However, rest assured that obtaining an affordable online master’s degree is indeed achievable, offering a promising path toward your goals.

While earning a master’s degree online allows you to advance your career and maintain full-time employment, tuition costs can still be intimidating. For students eager to upgrade their education, there are affordable colleges and degrees out there that can help advance your career without draining your bank account.

Use this guide to learn which colleges offer the most affordable online master’s degrees, discover which majors 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 you need to consider the cost of tuition before any other factors. Estimating your cost isn’t complicated — to see if a program fits your budget, simply multiply the number of required credits by the quoted rate, then subtract any tuition assistance you anticipate receiving. If the program is too expensive, 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. While you’ll still have to pay for books and university fees, tuition is the costliest part of earning an online 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 program. At Berea College, for instance, students graduated with an average debt of $6,700. Meanwhile, graduates of the University of North Texas at Dallas owed an average of $6,927 upon graduation. 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. Public universities usually have lower costs for getting a master’s degree because they get help from government subsidies and state funding. This support cuts down tuition costs for students, making it easier to afford education. On the other hand, private universities lean much more on tuition fees and donations, leading to higher expenses for students pursuing advanced degrees.

  • Grants & Scholarships

    Grants and scholarships do not have to be repaid, making them a popular option for offsetting master’s degree costs. Finding a school that 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


Missouri University of Science and Technology




Concordia University—Chicago




Eastern Illinois University




University of Texas Rio Grande Valley




University of Northern Iowa




Stevens Institute of Technology




New Mexico University—Main Campus




Ball State University




University of Central Arkansas




University of Nebraska—Lincoln




University of Alabama in Huntsville




Iowa State University




University of Central Missouri




Rochester Institute of Technology




Minnesota State University—Mankato




SUNY College at Brockport




Western Carolina University




University of Massachusetts—Lowell




Arkansas Tech University




University of North Carolina at Greensboro




Lamar University




Missouri State University—Springfield




Stephen F. Austin State University




Tarleton State University




University of Missouri—Columbia



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


Online Master’s in Forestry



Online Master’s in Plant Sciences



Online Master’s in Chemical Engineering



Online Master’s in Agriculture



Online Master’s in Zoology/Animal Biology



Online Master’s in Bilingual, Multilingual, & Multicultural Studies



Online Master’s in Engineering Science



Online Master’s in Neurobiology & Neurosciences



Online Master’s in Industrial Engineering



Online Master’s in Electrical, Electronics, & Communications Engineering



Online Master’s in Mathematics



Online Master’s in Ethnic, Cultural Minority, Gender, & Group Studies



Online Master’s in Physics



Online Master’s in Parks, Recreation, & Leisure Studies



Online Master’s in Curriculum & Instruction



Online Master’s in Chemistry



Online Master’s in Mechanical Engineering



Online Master’s in Civil Engineering



Online Master’s in Food Science & Technology



Online Master’s in Teacher Education & Professional Development



Online Master’s in Education



Online Master’s in Religion Studies



Online Master’s in Geological & Earth Sciences/Geosciences



Online Master’s in Environmental/Environmental Health Engineering



Online Master’s in Educational/Instructional Media Design


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

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

  • Payment Calculators

    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.