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Beyond the Campus: The Advantages of Earning Your Master’s Online

While an on-campus education provides opportunities for collaboration, networking, and direct interaction with professors and peers, it is also a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. Knowing this, consider whether the benefits of an online master’s degree program make more sense for your lifestyle and career goals.
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If you earned your bachelor’s degree on campus, you may be concerned about the quality of an online master’s degree program. It can be hard to imagine building a good rapport with your professors and peers, getting the resources you need to succeed, and receiving the same quality of education in a virtual classroom.

Naturally, you want to ensure that you receive an excellent education before choosing an online master’s program; after all, higher education is not a cheap pursuit. On top of concerns about quality and cost, you may also have a family and other obligations that make the idea of returning to school a daunting prospect. How will you juggle your education with your daily responsibilities? Is it possible to fit an education into your already hectic schedule?

The good news is that flexibility, quality, and affordability are the main reasons people choose to pursue their master’s degrees online. If you’re still unsure whether an online master’s degree program is right for you, this guide can help you consider the perks of online education, better understand if it aligns with your goals, and choose a program that aligns with your future.

The Perks of Earning Your Master’s Online

Online learning offers many benefits, especially for people who can’t dedicate all of their energy to their education. With more and more prestigious schools offering online master’s degree programs, it’s also easier than ever to earn a high-quality education while benefiting from a virtual learning environment. Below, find further insight into the key advantages of an online graduate degree.

Greater Flexibility

Earning a master’s degree from the comfort of your home (or wherever you have a good internet connection) helps balance your lifestyle with your educational pursuits. Online classes eliminate the back and forth to campus, allowing you to choose classes that truly fit your schedule.

Online master’s programs recognize that many of their students crave flexibility that traditional, in-person universities can’t always provide. In turn, they have a large selection of classes and class times, often allowing you to pursue your education at your own pace.

Lower Costs

With online degrees, you won’t experience many of the stereotypical standards of college life including extracurriculars, on-campus living and dining, and the “traditional” college culture. You’re also not paying a pretty penny to take part in these standard elements. Online universities are cheaper in part because they don’t have as much overhead.

You’ll also avoid other expenses associated with the in-person college lifestyle, including parking, commutes, and having to relocate. Combined, all these savings can add up to a much more affordable college price tag.

More Program Choices

Studying online gives you access to universities you may otherwise not have thought you could attend. Even Ivy League schools have online-only programs, so the sky’s the limit when it comes to school choices. And unlike traditional campus experiences — where you’re limited to the school’s established program offerings — you can search for a program and then select a school that offers it online. This is especially helpful if you’re searching for a degree that is a bit more rare or specialized.

Increased Access

Virtual programs offer students constant access to learning materials, enabling students to study at their own pace. Homework submissions become hassle-free, reducing logistical challenges. Questions are also posed online, allowing for continuous engagement and interaction. Overall, virtual programs empower students to take control of their education, breaking down time and location barriers.

Greater Diversity

Online classes attract students from around the world. This increases your chance of working with a broader range of people, allowing you to experience different cultures and benefit from diverse perspectives. Plus, online options are attractive to students who are in various stages of their lives, while in-person colleges typically cater to students right out of high school. Different life experiences contribute to the classroom because they allow students to understand subject matters from different points of view.

More Control

When you go to an in-person college, it often still feels like you do what you’re told: You eat at the dining hall every day, you go to classes most of the day, and then you head back to your school-based housing. Online learning lets you make your own schedule. You balance classes and homework with work, childcare, and all the other daily life responsibilities.

New Opportunities

Because online degrees are often less expensive and don’t require in-person learning, they’re attractive options for working professionals looking to return to school. You might discover new opportunities in different industries as a result of distance education, allowing you to switch careers and potentially earn a higher income and better benefits. Even though you’re learning online, many online universities still provide large professional networks and business events to connect with people all over the world.

Questions to Ask Before Earning Your Master’s Online

The last thing you want to do is spend money on a master’s degree for the sake of it. Before determining if pursuing an online master’s is right for you, ask yourself the following questions to clarify your goals and desired outcomes so you can choose the best program for your lifestyle, needs, and future.

What field do I want to study?

Before ever considering an online degree, seriously think through what you want to study. Have you always wanted to be a teacher? Would you prefer to be a paralegal? Careers like these often translate well with online degrees. Others you’ll need to consider more carefully. For example, while there are online options for certain portions of a medical degree, you must be present in person for much of the degree.

If you want to expand your skills and think a degree can help, online degrees are often the perfect option. Think about the skills you already have. Would it be more lucrative to further your education, potentially leading to a promotion or higher earnings?

What is the career outlook for my desired field?

The last thing you want to do is find out the degree you’re earning doesn’t come with a favorable industry outlook. Certain industries are flourishing, while others don’t necessarily lead to a high paycheck. Research top fields for great salaries (this guide is a great place to start), ensuring that your master’s degree will offer the necessary return on investment.

How soon would I like to earn my online master's degree?

Online degree programs consider the many unique needs of their students, as shown through the variety of paths available. Certain degree programs (such as some of USC’s online programs) offer faster tracks for students looking to get their degrees quickly. Others (like some at Northwestern) offer part-time options for those who need a more flexible schedule.

How will I finance my online master's degree program?

Fortunately, you’ll find there are numerous ways to finance your master’s degree. Using a combination of financing options is likely best, but you’ll need to decide based on your income and employment which options work for you. Start by considering affordable degree programs that focus on keeping costs low.

Once you know the final price tag of your preferred program, fill out the FAFSA, investigate scholarships, and see if your employer offers tuition assistance.

How much time am I willing to dedicate to my education?

While online degrees are generally flexible, some programs are more rigid. You need to fully understand the time commitment involved with the degree you’re pursuing. Consider not just how long classes are and when they are, but also the work required outside of class, too. Are there laboratory hours? Extra lectures required? How much homework can you expect? This information often appears on the program’s homepage, but you can also connect with academic advisors to inquire about the details of your program.

What to Look for in an Online Master’s Program

Because online master’s degrees have become increasingly popular in recent years, you have your pick of programs. At the same time, wading through the available universities, programs, and specialties can be a murky process, and it’s hard to know what to look for. To help you out, below are the most important things to consider when comparing online master’s degree programs.

Accreditation

Simply put, accreditation ensures that you’re attending a quality program that meets certain standards. Some schools have regional or institutional accreditations, and you’ll also find some program-specific accrediting agencies. A few examples of programmatic accrediting bodies for master’s degree programs include:

Meeting third-party accreditation standards ensures that graduates from these programs are well-prepared for their respective professions.

Admission Requirements

Online degree programs tend to have comparable admission requirements to in-person programs. Review the requirements for your specified degree; generally, you’ll need to provide:

  • Application & fee: You can typically find/submit applications online.
  • Certified transcripts: Online universities will require transcripts from any completed education, including high school or a GED and any college coursework you’ve already completed.
  • Admissions essay: Your admissions essay is often a question or a few questions you’ll answer to give the admissions team a better understanding of your abilities and creativity. This is a place for you to stand apart from other applicants, so take your time when writing the essay.
  • Reference letters: Ask past professors, employers, or internship mentors to tell the admissions team who you are and why they should admit you.
  • Minimum GPA: Certain degrees require a minimum GPA from your previous college or high school.

For more information on college admissions requirements and processes, check out our admissions guide.

Cost

The sticker shock associated with online degrees is often less than you’ll experience with in-person degrees, but it’s still important to have a plan in place about how you’ll pay for school. Be sure to research these popular ways to reduce the cost of your master’s degree.

  • Financial aid: Many online schools accept federal financial aid. Start by applying through the FAFSA, which is a form most colleges require if you want to use any sort of financial aid.
  • Scholarships: If you can get them, scholarships are great options for funding your education because you don’t need to repay them. Sources are abundant, but start by researching your university, private organizations, and your future industry for potential scholarships.
  • Student loans: Once you’ve exhausted federal funding, private student loans help make up the difference. This is the costliest option, so this should be a last resort. Private lenders set their own fees and terms, so be sure to comparison shop.
  • Employer reimbursement: Employment reimbursement is when your employer offers you financial assistance should you wish to pursue further education. For example, Apple offers employees reimbursement for tuition and other school-related expenses.

Faculty

Master’s programs, online or not, tend to have smaller class sizes. Look into the credentials of your potential professors, who will also likely be your professors throughout the two-year program. Make sure that their areas of expertise align with your desired career path, so you get the most out of working with them.

Learning Format

Not all online programs are built the same. Each program uses a specific learning format that works for certain types of students. There are two distinct styles you’ll run into when opting for an online education:

  • Synchronous: This is what you’d likely classify as the more “traditional” format. You log on at a specified time and watch a professor teach the class. You’re just behind a computer screen rather than physically in the classroom.
  • Asynchronous: This format is less structured, allowing you to choose when you engage with the lecture and coursework. Students all get access to materials provided by professors, and you complete the work at your own pace, with deadlines staggered throughout the course.

Program Timeline

Online master’s degree programs can vary in terms of their timelines and workload options to accommodate the diverse needs of students. Some programs have set timelines you must meet to keep up with the rigorous subject matter. Others focus on keeping things flexible. Generally, you’ll encounter the following timeline options:

  • Full-time: A typical, full-time master’s degree is two years, usually requiring at least 12 credits each semester.
  • Part-time: Designed for individuals who have work or family obligations, part-time enrollment allows students to take a reduced course load, often around six to nine credits per semester.
  • Advanced standing: This course load is for those who have previous credits from other universities. They allow you to waive certain courses, helping to shorten your program’s duration.

Specializations

Online master’s degree programs offer just as many specializations as in-person programs, allowing students to focus on specific areas of expertise. For example, the Online Master of Science in Computer Science from Georgia Tech offers specializations in fields like machine learning and cybersecurity. Specialized degrees enhance your career prospects by teaching expert skills tailored to a particular industry or role.

Success Rate

Understanding how successful other students who have gone to your potential school of choice can help you decide if it’s the right option. Many colleges offer data on the employment and graduation rates of their degrees. You’ll also likely find typical jobs graduates get and their average incomes so you can see if this aligns with your goals.

You’ve Been Accepted to an Online Master’s Program. Now What?

Once accepted into your program of choice, the real work begins. To ensure a smooth path forward, you’ll need some tools to succeed, as well as a plan of attack. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Become Tech-Ready

Because you’ll be earning your master’s online, you must ensure you have all the tools needed to access your courses, view lectures, communicate with professors/peers, and complete assignments. Below is a checklist of some items you likely need for your online master’s degree program:

  • Access to a computer with the appropriate software
  • Strong internet connection that supports video streaming
  • Functioning computer microphone, speakers, and camera
  • Working email address (your school will likely provide one)
  • Access to any other online software you may need
  • Access to available online school resources (e.g., virtual library, database, textbooks, etc.)

Build a Weekly Schedule

Now the real fun begins: You get to start choosing your classes and building a schedule that works for your needs. You’ll want to ensure a healthy work-life-study balance while still meeting requirements. Consider the steps below as you build the right schedule for your needs:

  • Step 1: Look at your specific program timeline and determine how many classes you need to take to stay on course with your weekly work schedule.
  • Step 2: Organize yourself with a tool like Google Calendar to schedule work, classes, and homework.
  • Step 3: Take into account your productivity patterns. Schedule challenging or time-consuming classes for days when your work schedule is lighter.
  • Step 4: Allocate time for short breaks between classes. If you’re commuting to work, include travel time in your schedule to avoid rushing and reduce stress.

Create a Study Space

Just because you’re not attending classes on campus doesn’t mean you should skip the step of creating a productive study space. Having a dedicated space allows you to pay attention during class and get your homework done promptly. Below are a few tips for preparing your happy study place. (Bonus: Find even more ideas here!)

  • Dedicate a desk, corner, or entire room to your schooling, if possible.
  • Stick to quiet spaces with few distractions.
  • Invest in a comfortable chair and desk to keep you comfortable during long classes and study sessions.
  • Store all your school materials in your dedicated space for easy access to quick study sessions.

Craft Good Study Habits

Building healthy study habits is one of the keys to passing classes with flying colors. Even though you’re at home, there are still ways you can take advantage of the classroom setting and develop strong study skills.

  • Create an online study group with students from your classes.
  • Use study apps like Flashcards and Quizlet to study.
  • Take advantage of any online tutoring options your degree program offers.
  • Consider online note-taking platforms such as Evernote or OneNote to sync your class notes across devices.

Familiarize Yourself with Your School

Although you likely researched your school before fully committing, once you know your exact program, take the time to deep dive into specifics. This pre-program preparation will help to set yourself up for a successful academic journey. Below are some tips for familiarizing yourself with your specific program.

  • Thoroughly review your program requirements and timeline.
  • Research your professors’ backgrounds and teaching styles.
  • Connect with fellow students in the same program.
  • Attend any orientations your school offers.

Explore Available Resources

Although your program exists online, your school still likely has many tangible resources at your disposal. Online programs don’t prioritize brick-and-mortar locations, so they’re able to direct their resources elsewhere, mainly in the form of additional academic amenities. To find the resources your school offers, consider the following tips:

  • Check your school’s website for dedicated academic portals like digital libraries and research databases.
  • Ask about online tutoring and writing centers that might be available by appointment.
  • Connect with your academic advisor to inquire about any other resources you might have at your disposal.

Resources for Online Master’s Degree Students

We’ve covered a lot in this guide — from finding the right program to advice about connecting with peers and mentors, identifying the right study tools to figuring out how to pay for school. But you’ll find plenty of other challenges facing you as an online student; here’s a sampling of resources that can help you tackle the challenge of earning your master’s degree online.

  1. Academia.edu: This online platform allows graduate students to share research papers, connect and collaborate with peers, and seek out professors and established researchers in their areas of interest.
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): The BLS is a great way for students to research potential career fields and identify which sectors are projected to experience significant growth.
  3. College Navigator: This free online tool allows you to search for and compare institutions by subject, degree, cost, learning preference (in-person vs. online), and other criteria.
  4. College Scorecard: Use this online tool from the U.S. Department of Education to compare the graduation rate, employment rate, tuition price, average amount borrowed, and loan default rate of higher education institutions in the U.S.
  5. EducationUSA: This online student advisor program promotes U.S. higher education by offering comprehensive information about accredited postsecondary institutions.
  6. Google Docs: Google Docs is a great collaboration tool for eLearners. Online students can use it to share notes or communicate about projects and classwork.
  7. Grammarly: This grammar and editing plugin can be used in internet browsers and programs (e.g., Google and Microsoft) to help improve your written communication.
  8. Protecting Student Privacy: Online training modules offered by the U.S. Department of Education provide valuable resources for educators, administrators, and students to better understand and protect their privacy rights.
  9. Quizlet: This free app allows students to create and share flashcards, take practice tests, and use AI-powered solutions to reach their educational goals.
  10. Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC): SDCC is an organization offering resources and advocacy to help students understand and address issues related to student loan debt.
  11. Students’ Mental Health College Guide: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) providesan online guide full of information on mental health rights, resources, and advocacy for students, both at online and in-person universities.
  12. Student Privacy Compass: This site provides information on student privacy rights and offers best practices for protecting your data in educational settings.
  13. Student Voice: This isa platform for students to share their experiences and advocate for positive change in the education sphere. They promote equal access to education and educate students on inequities in the education system.
  14. The College Investor Podcast: This podcast offers personal finance advice for college students. It prepares students for college life and financial life outside of college.
  15. The Student Loan Podcast: The podcast offers advice on student loan debt, including how to get the right loans and how to get out of debt.