So you’ve decided to pursue a master’s degree. Good for you! An advanced degree can open up a world of opportunities for career advancement, higher earning potential, and a powerful set of professional skills. But now, you’re faced with another important decision. Online or in-person? On campus or in the comfort of your own home? Fully clothed and out in public or dressed for bedtime from the waist-down?
We’re here to help you find the best school for you, and that includes distinguishing between these two very different experiences. Whether you’re just finishing up work on your bachelor’s degree or you’re a working professional a decade removed from college, read on to determine if an online master’s degree is right for you...
In a lot of ways, the time has never been better for earning a master’s degree. As America continues to dig its way out of the twin crises of the pandemic and the resulting recession, graduate school is a great place to take refuge. And that’s not just because an advanced degree program is a constructive place to wait out the storm. It’s also because the options for completing a highly-regarded master’s degree program online have never been more varied.
And if you’re wondering whether or not it’s worth spending the next 2 to 3 years earning your master’s degree, consider what we’ve learned during the pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center, “since the pandemic began, highly educated workers are significantly less likely to have lost health insurance or to have struggled to pay bills. And federal reserve data indicates the unemployment rate is two times higher for high school graduates than it is for those with a Master’s degree.”
...the investment in a postgraduate degree can pay off with advantages that are easier to measure than ever before.”
The pandemic disrupted education, work and life for Americans as a whole. However, those with advanced degrees have fared better. Certainly, this is rooted in the reciprocal relationship between educational attainment and privilege. However, in the view of the pandemic, these outcomes are also evidence that the investment in a postgraduate degree can pay off with advantages that are easier to measure than ever before.
To learn more about how the pandemic has impacted online education, check out “Online Education and COVID-19—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”
With America, and indeed the world, plunged into a state of crisis, those with advanced degrees were insulated from the worst of the professional fallout. Perhaps this is why, even with undergraduate enrollment falling by 2.5% year over year, graduate school enrollment is actually way up. According to the National Student Clearing House, “enrollment in master’s programs has increased by 6% and enrollment in post-baccalaureate certificates has increased 24% since 2019.”
But today, it also correlates to the potential for job security even during highly insecure times. Still, should you get an online master’s degree? The answer will depend upon your personal situation, your learning style, and your general career goals. So let’s narrow down the answer by addressing a few leading questions first.
In general, earning a master’s degree has always correlated to higher earning potential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers some fairly compelling statistics connecting educational attainment with earnings, noting that those with a high school degree earn an average of $746 per week while those with a bachelor’s degree earn roughly $1,248 per week. For those with a master’s degree, average weekly earnings come in at close to $1500. In other words, while the absolute value of an advanced degree can vary widely from one profession to the next, there is a clear wage premium for those with a master’s degree.
Whether it’s worth getting the master’s degree online versus in-person depends on the experience you seek. That’s because, generally speaking, earning the degree online won’t necessarily be much less expensive, at least not in terms of tuition and fees. You can certainly save on travel, housing, and campus fees by pursuing your degree online. But otherwise, there isn’t much difference in the cost per credit between comparable online and on-campus programs. So the value really comes down to what you’re looking for.
If your goal is to acquire knowledge, skills, and credentials quickly and without distraction, it would almost certainly be worth your while to pursue the online version.”
If your goal is to acquire knowledge, skills, and credentials quickly and without distraction, it would almost certainly be worth your while to pursue the online version. On the other hand, if you prefer direct social engagement, dynamic live classroom discussions, and the general collegial atmosphere of a university campus, you may feel that the online experience falls short.
In sheer dollars and sense, a master’s degree in the right field will usually be “worth it.” Whether the same is true about the online version of this program will be mostly about your preference. With respect to this preference, there are a few things you should ask yourself first:
If you answered in the affirmative to most of these questions, an online master’s degree is probably worth it for you. If you were hesitant on any of these points, you may want to investigate a little further before taking the virtual plunge.
One is not necessarily better than the other, but if you are considering an online master’s degree, be sure that you keep accreditation in mind. Accreditation matters a lot, especially online. Online education has become a highly mainstream and widely accepted pathway to a degree. Many of the very best schools in the world offer access to partially or fully online advanced degrees. Such is to say that there is no stigma surrounding an online master’s degree either in the eyes of future employers or in the view of other educational institutions.
That said, online education is also teeming with shady for-profit operations, degree mills, and substandard schools. Accreditation is the key to distinguishing between a real online college and one of these lesser institutions.
Any online master's degree you pursue should be granted by a school with accreditation from an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.”
If you’re at the point of seeking an advanced degree, we’re guessing this is not a new subject for you. You probably learned quite a bit about accreditation as you shopped for your undergraduate degree. But here’s a quick reminder. Any online master’s degree you pursue should be granted by a school with accreditation from an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. This can include both regional and national accreditors, but you should bear in mind that regional accreditation is held in much higher regard by both employers and other educational institutions.
Programmatic accreditation may also be of particular importance depending on your area of education. Some career paths require that your degree be accredited in a specific subject area. For instance, in order to become a licensed social worker, one must have attained a degree which has programmatic accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). All of this to say that the only material difference between your online and in-person master’s degree is that the former will require you to scrutinize accreditation a little more closely.
For tips on how best to do this, check out our Guide to Accreditation in Higher Education.
No. In most cases, a reputable online master’s degree program will be based on the same curriculum and performance measures as a traditional on-campus master’s degree program. In some cases, you may even have the same professor as your on-campus counterparts. Do not, under any circumstances, choose an online course because you think it will be easier.
In fact, if you aren’t accustomed to learning through the online medium, be prepared for an adjustment period. Depending on your background with online education and your comfort with independent learning, this may actually be a more challenging pathway to an advanced degree. If you are accustomed to online learning, expect a similar level of rigor as you might in a physical classroom.
Simply stated, the only thing that’s easier about online education is the commute.
Evidence suggests that accredited online degrees have largely earned the respect of employers. According to a 2018 survey from the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University, 61% of HR leaders view online degrees as equal to those completed in-person. 52% even said they believe that the majority of advanced degrees will be earned online in the future. Some 71% of employers also noted that they had hired at least one individual with an online degrees in the prior 12 months.
These figures add up to broad and growing respect for online degrees. And in fact, not only will your employers not look sideways at an online master’s degree, but in many cases, they may actually help you pay for it. If you’re already a working professional and you’re seeking an online master’s degree as a way to grow your skill sets, advance in your organization, or raise your earning potential, your employers may be enthusiastic about improving your qualifications without pulling you away from your work responsibilities. This makes online learning an especially appealing option. As long as your degree is granted by a reputable and accredited school, your current employer may think especially highly of an online degree.
As long as your degree is granted by a reputable and accredited school, your current employer may think especially highly of an online degree.”
If you’re making the jump right from an undergraduate program to an online master’s degree program, the same logic applies. As long as the degree is granted by an accredited college or university, your employer won’t view it as being any different than a traditional degree. Indeed, in most cases, there will be no way for your prospective employer to distinguish between an online or on-campus experience unless you choose to provide that information. Your actual transcript and degree will likely include no specific indication of whether credits were earned remotely or in the classroom.
That said, some employers may even think of an online degree as a positive, especially if your job will include some measure of telecommuting. Earning a master’s degree online requires a specific set of time management, organization, and self-motivation skills that many employers will consider valuable in their own right.
Some employers may be concerned about your ability to apply your skills in an in-person environment. You should be prepared to elaborate on your skills in this area, and demonstrate that you have worked to network, collaborate, and sharpen your interpersonal skills even through the online learning medium.
With that in mind...
That’s up to you! If you’re new to online learning, there’s no question that working in your own private space will be an adjustment. And if you’re feeling sentimental about the sights, sounds and smells of the classroom, you might feel a twinge of isolation in your new online program.
However, this doesn’t mean that you’re alone. If a year of pandemic life has taught us nothing else, it’s that we’re lucky to have so many ways of connecting through technology. Take advantage, not just by attending classes, but by using the online medium to build connections with instructors and classmates. Some online students say they actually get more 1 on 1 time with their online instructors than they did in traditional educational settings. That’s because online communication creates a type of flexibility that allows for more direct engagement with teachers, more opportunities to ask questions, and more privacy to discuss personal matters that may be impacting your educational experience.
And for anybody that’s attended a Zoom party over the last year+, you can already see how easily one could start a virtual study group. Make friends. Build connections. Network at every turn. From a social perspective, treat your online experience like you would a traditional educational experience. You may not be able to replicate the buzzing energy of a live classroom, but you can still simulate a lot of the interactive opportunities that make up an educational community.
And if this will be your first experience with online education, consider a look at Top 10 Tips for Online Education Beginners
Learn more about applying to and excelling in your advanced degree program with a look at our Guide to Grad Life.
Or jump to our student resource library for tips on everything from studying to starting on your career path.