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Online Master’s Degree Programs

Online master’s degree programs have become an increasingly common option for a broad range of students and professionals who want to improve their job prospects, further their careers, and develop advanced skills and proficiencies in specific fields. As computer-based, distance-learning technologies have evolved and online teaching methodologies have improved, larger numbers of non-profit public and private colleges and universities have introduced online graduate programs in emerging fields like data science and cybersecurity while offering a greater selection of their traditional campus-based programs online. This provides students who do not want to relocate to another city or commute to a college or university campus in order to attend school a convenient alternative to campus-based programs and an array of options for earning master’s degrees in many different fields. It also gives students the freedom to explore master’s programs offered throughout their state of residence and in other states without the additional concerns associated with being away from family and/or work for significant periods of time.

While there are some types of master’s programs that may not currently be available online, and some online programs do not offer the same variety of specializations and/or electives as their campus-based counterparts, the types of master’s programs offered online is rather vast. There are online Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Public Administration (MPA), Master of Health Administration (MHA), Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Education (MEd), Master of Engineering (MEng), and Master of Computer Science (MSC) degree programs, as well as an array of Master of Science (MS) and Master of Arts (MA) degree programs in fields like counseling, healthcare, government, criminal justice, and applied sciences offered online. In addition, students who cannot find a college or university that offers a particular type of online master’s program in their state of residence can often find schools that offer online master’s programs in their field of study by exploring out-of-state options.

Data on Graduate Student Enrollment in Online Programs

The extent to which students seeking graduate degrees are gravitating toward online programs is illustrated in the two tables below, which draw on data collected by the US Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) for its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The IPEDS data cited in the first table delineates the total number of students who were reported as enrolled in master’s and doctoral programs during the fall term from 2015 through 2020. It shows an increase from 2.94 to 3.20 million students enrolled in graduate degree programs over that period. It also indicates that the number of students enrolled in exclusively online programs increased significantly, from approximately 759,000 in 2015 to over 1,014,000 in 2019, and the number of graduate students who were reported as enrolling in entirely campus-based programs (i.e., students taking no classes online) fell. While the definition of what constitutes a fully online program may differ by school, the data demonstrate a considerable shift towards more students enrolling in graduate level courses online.

Note: As the data below illustrate, campus closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a significant increase in students taking online courses in the fall of 2020 (latest available data).

All Graduate Programs2,938,7922,982,2153,020,3413,069,7723,123,322
Exclusively Online 758,779813,838865,676934,3401,014,9301,651,405
Some Online 244,242275,630274,717280,058298,093602,186
No Online1,935,7711,892,7471,879,9481,855,3741,810,299945,610

The trend toward a greater enrollment in online courses and in programs that are offered exclusively online at the graduate level is further illustrated by the table below, which contrasts the percentage of students enrolled in online master’s and doctoral programs with the percentage of students who took some online courses and the percentage of students who took no online courses. The percentage of students enrolled in fully online graduate programs rose from approximately 26% in 2015 to 32.5% in 2019, while the percentage of students who received no online instruction fell from 65.9% to 58% over that time period. (Again, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the percentage of students completing graduate programs entirely online in 2020 rose to over 51.6%.)

Exclusively Online 25.82%27.29%28.66%30.44%32.50%51.62%
Some Online 8.31%9.24%9.10%9.12%9.54%18.82%
No Online65.87%63.47%62.24%60.44%57.96%29.56%

Earning a Master’s Degree Online

Online master’s degree programs typically provide the same training and instruction as their on-campus counterparts, although some programs may not offer the same electives and/or concentration options as campus-based programs. Prospective applicants to an online master’s program should examine a program’s curriculum carefully to ensure that it offers coursework and/or a track/specialization in their specific area of interest. This may require looking at online programs offered by schools in different parts of the country.

One of the advantages of earning a master’s degree online is the relative flexibility and convenience of online instruction. In contrast to traditional, campus-based master’s programs and hybrid or blended master’s programs that offer some courses online and some courses on-campus, online programs offer all or most of their courses using distance-learning technologies. This is facilitated though learning management systems (LMSs), which serve as online platforms for accessing lectures and other course materials, completing exams and other assignments, contacting instructors, and interacting with classmates. By logging on to a program’s LMS, students can view lectures and submit assignments from their home, office, or anywhere else with a secure Internet connection. As a result, the location of the college or university offering a particular master’s program is often less of a constraint.

It is, however, important to note that completing a master’s degree online may take more self-discipline and self-motivation compared to campus-based master’s programs. Depending on a program’s structure, an online master’s program may or may not have designated class meeting times. While many online programs are offered in flexible formats that allow for part-time and full-time enrollment, students earning a master’s degree online should be prepared to dedicate a minimum of ten to twenty hours a week to coursework when classes are in session. While students in an online program do not have to spend time commuting to a campus, they are responsible for making time to view lectures, turn in assignments, and meet other academic obligations by set deadlines.

Online Master’s Program Format Options

The relative convenience and flexibility of an online master’s program is determined by several factors that vary by program. There are, for example, two primary modes of online instruction: synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Synchronous online instruction is analogous to a traditional classroom experience in that course meetings happen in real-time during designated periods when students must be logged on to the school’s LMS. Asynchronous online instruction is more like an on-demand streaming service. Students in a course that utilizes asynchronous instruction can access lectures and other course materials at their convenience, 24-7. While most courses include some asynchronous components, a program that incorporates real-time synchronous activities requires that students be available to participate in classes at the times scheduled by the program. However, many online programs that utilize synchronous instruction make an effort to schedule synchronous classes at times that are less likely to create conflicts for students with full-time jobs.

Another structural variable prospective applicants to an online master’s program may want to consider concerns enrollment options. Some online master’s programs are designed to give full-time students a relatively short path to completion. For a master’s degree program, this typically involves carrying a full-time course load year-round for a minimum of 12 to 16 months. Other online master’s programs are designed for part-time students, which may involve taking the equivalent of two courses per semester for five or six semesters, or two or more years. There are also flexible programs that allow students to choose the number of courses they take per term and the order in which those courses are taken, provided students complete the program in an allotted number of years (usually five or six years). In contrast, some programs use a cohort model designed for groups of students to start and finish a program together in a set number of terms by following a designated sequence of courses.

It is also important to note that online master’s programs are more likely than campus-based master’s programs to use alternatives to the traditional three-semester or four-quarter academic calendars. Rather than offering classes during 15-week fall, spring, and summer terms, these programs may employ shorter, five- or eight-week terms during which full-time students may take just one or two courses. Programs that utilize these shorter terms typically hold five or six terms per year, and may have multiple start dates for newly admitted applicants.

Finally, applicants to online master’s programs should be aware that some programs require students to attend a limited number of campus-based sessions for instructional purposes. While many programs are offered 100% online, some programs use campus visits, often referred to as immersion sessions or intensives, for orientations, seminars, workshops, and other educational activities that can enhance the online learning experience. These campus visits can be as brief as two to three days or as long as a week to ten days, and students may incur travel and lodging expenses in addition to base tuition and fees while attending these sessions. Potential applicants should research online programs carefully to determine whether or not a particular program requires campus visits and/or contact a program administrator regarding other aspects of a program’s structure and format. does not currently list master’s programs that require more than two or three campus visits per year, depending on the degree program.

Admissions Criteria, State Authorizations, and Licensure Restrictions for Online Master’s Programs

The baseline requirement for admission to online master’s programs is a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Some programs require applicants to have majored in a particular field or fields, or to have completed certain college-level prerequisites, while others are designed for students who have a certain number of years of professional experience in a field relevant to the area of study. It is also not uncommon for online master’s programs to require students to submit standardized test scores (GMAT/GRE), two or three references or letters of recommendations, a personal goals statement, and/or answers to one or more essay questions.

There may also be specific admissions requirements for different types of master’s degree programs. For example, some master’s in accounting programs are designed for students who hold a bachelor’s in accounting degree, while others accept candidates with undergraduate degrees in any discipline. Applicants to most online MSN programs must hold a valid state license to practice as a Registered Nurse (RN). In addition, there are MSN programs that require applicants to have completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, as well as MSN programs for RNs who hold a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. Finally, there are programs that accept RNs who have not yet completed a bachelor’s program but who received training for RN licensure in an associate degree in nursing (ADN) program or a hospital-based nursing diploma program. Students interested in pursing an online master’s degree in a particular field should examine the admissions eligibility requirements for graduate programs in that field.

Most online master’s degree programs admit students regardless of their state of residence and many programs charge the same tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state online students. There are exceptions and tuition policies vary by program and by school. For example, some states provide scholarships and other incentives to residents who attend an in-state program in a particular field, and some states schools provide tuition breaks to residents of that state. Applicants to out-of-state programs should research program costs to determine whether or not there are different tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state online students.

Prospective applicants should also be aware that some online master’s programs do not admit students from certain states either because the school has not received authorization from that state or because there are internship/field education requirements that must be completed in that state. The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) was established in 2013 to maintain national standards for postsecondary distance education programs and to rationalize the process by which schools receive state authorizations for online degree programs. However, the NC-SARA process is voluntary and may not apply to particular online master’s degree programs. This is often true in clinical fields such as counseling, nursing, and social work. Master’s programs in these fields are generally required to offer students a certain number of internship, practicum, and/or field education hours at the master’s degree level in order to receive programmatic accreditation, and these supervised clinical hours may also be a requirement for licensure in that field by the state. Some states may have internship requirements that out-of-state master’s programs do not meet. As a result, some online master’s programs in clinical fields may not accept applicants from all 50 states.

Admissions restrictions based on state authorizations and clinical training requirements are two factors that prospective applicants to online master’s programs offered by out-of-state colleges and universities may have to take into account. In addition, students in any field that has a state licensure requirement should examine those requirements in order to determine whether or not a program offered in their state of residence or in another state meets those requirements. In most but not all cases, in-state programs are designed to fulfill that state’s training requirements for students in master’s degree programs. There are typically out-of-state programs that meet those requirements as well, due to the fact that licensure requirements in many fields are similar from state to state. However, students intending to apply for licensure to teach or provide clinical services in counseling, nursing, or social work should be aware that they may have to complete additional coursework and/or training after finishing an online master’s degree program in order to qualify for licensure.

Online Master’s Degree Programs by State

The pages listed below provide detailed, state-by-state data and informatioin regarding online master’s degree programs offered by accredited, non-profit colleges and universities in those states, as well as information on accredited online master’s programs offered by out-of-state schools that accept students from that state. For each state we have conducted independent research into the types of online programs offered by public and private schools in that state.

Using IPEDS data, we have determined the areas of study in which master’s degrees are most commonly conferred in that state through online, campus-based, and hybrid programs. IPEDS data is organized using a taxonomy that assigns Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes to different types of degree programs. These codes may or may not align with a school’s formal designation for specific master’s programs. However, the CIP codes do line up with general areas of training and instruction at the master’s degree level, such as accounting, business administration, education, finance, healthcare, nursing, and social work. Using the IPEDS data as a guide, we have determined the most common degree areas for each state and explored both in-state and out-of-state schools that offer those degree programs. This research is designed to provide potential applicants to master’s degree programs with a resource for finding accredited online programs in their desired field of study that are offered by non-profit colleges and universities that accept students from their state.