Online Master's Degree

Postsecondary education is a growing requirement for employment in a majority of occupations in the US. Research from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University estimates that 65 percent of all occupations will require some form of postsecondary education and training by 2020. Of the 55 million projected job openings between 2010 and 2022, approximately 11 percent (6 million) will require candidates to hold a master's degree or higher. Beyond growing educational opportunities, graduate degrees also have a direct correlation to earning potential. Consider, since 1983, the earnings of individuals with a graduate degree have climbed by 55 percent, far outpacing the 34 percent of those with a bachelor's or 15 percent for individuals with only an associate degree.

In today's competitive global economy, a bachelor's degree is no longer a distinguishing academic credential. For individuals that desire to augment their marketability, improve their salaries, or even switch careers, the master's degree is a strong starting point. Nationally, the number of individuals enrolled in graduate school grew steadily by 6.3 percent between the fall of 2008 and the fall of 2013, according to a recent survey from the Council of Graduate Schools. As interest in graduate education has increased during the past decade, so too have the number of master's programs available via online learning. In 2013, data from the National Center of Education Statistics shows more than 680,000 students were enrolled exclusively in online master's degree programs.

According to the US Department of Education, a master's degree generally takes two years of full-time study beyond completion of a bachelor's. Typically -- and depending on the program -- master's degrees include 30 to 36 semester credit hours of study and are available in both thesis and non-thesis tracks. Curriculum generally focuses on advanced coursework in the student's field of study. There are two major types of master's degrees: Master of Arts and Master of Science.

  • Master of Science (M.S.): The M.S. is a graduate-level degree earned through completion of a program in science, health, or some social science fields. M.S. programs tend to place an emphasis on research-based courses.
  • Master of Arts (M.A.): Students who earn this degree typically graduate from a program in one of the humanities, such as English, communications, philosophy, history, or fine arts.

In addition, there are numerous named degrees -- that is, degrees designed for professional practice in specific areas. Examples include the following:

  • Master of Business Administration
  • Master of Library Science
  • Master of Social Work
  • Master of Public Policy
  • Master of Fine Arts

Master's degree programs are available in a wide range of majors and specializations. For more information on individual programs, check out the links below or contact an admissions advisor directly.

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Master's degree programs integrate discipline-specific instruction with broad skill development in areas such as critical thinking and analysis, active listening, reading comprehension, and writing. Gaining these types of employability skills better positions graduates to pursue career opportunities in a variety of fields. Typically offered at four-year colleges (both public and private), the number of master's degrees moving online continues to increase each year, affording students the opportunity to complete a graduate education in a flexible, professionally focused environment.

The particular learning environment depends on the institution, the department, and the program of study. Traditionally, online master's programs are delivered via two types of learning formats: asynchronous and synchronous.

  • Asynchronous: Self-paced form of instruction where students can access their materials at any time, set their own schedule, and control their learning process.
  • Synchronous: Real-time based instruction where students participate in class sessions and lectures via learning technologies (such as video chat or online message boards) with their instructors and other students.

Again, not all graduate programs are alike. Some subjects, such as criminal justice, lend themselves to a fully online format, while other degree programs, such as the Master of Business in Administration (MBA) or the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), may require students to visit campus or participate in hand-on practicums. The blended format -- bringing together online and face-to-face instruction -- is known as hybrid learning and is a very common option at the master's degree level.

The latest data from Eduventures indicates that 27 percent of online students are master's degree students, while a 2014 survey from LearningHouse pegs the number slightly higher at 39 percent. More than 1,000 schools in the US offer master's degrees via distance education across 500-plus areas of academic subjects. Based on program availability, the most popular areas of study for online master's degree programs include:

Popular Programs of Study
Job Openings (2016-26)
Total Employment
School Counseling34800285460
Early Childhood Education Administration21200263120
NP Nurse Practitioner14400179650
Social Work22500168190
Instructional Design16800163900
Higher Education Administration15700143430
Occupational Therapist Assisting9700126900
Library Science14500125750
Physicians Assistant10600114710
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

In a 2014 survey conducted by LearningHouse, graduate students responded the top majors for online studies included business, nursing, elementary education, educational administration (K-12), and health administration. Based on employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fastest-growing occupations requiring a master's degree as an entry point for employment include the following:

Fastest Growing Occupations
Average Salary (2016)
Job Growth (2012-22)
Physician Assistants$108,43037%
Nurse Practitioners$110,03036%
Genetic Counselors$80,86028%
Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary$81,35024%
Orthotists and Prosthetists$73,86022%
Occupational Therapists$85,35021%
Nurse Midwives$106,91021%
Marriage and Family Therapists$54,15020%
Healthcare Social Workers$58,47019%
Speech-Language Pathologists$80,70018%
Nurse Anesthetists$174,79016%
Counselors, All Other$47,74014%
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook

Online master's degree programs typically offer more flexibility than traditional campus-based programs. In most cases, students can complete courses whenever and wherever it fits in their busy schedule. This gives working professionals the opportunity to further their education while maintaining a full-time career and family.

Below are three key benefits of earning a master's degree:

  1. Academic preparation for doctoral studies. Master's degree programs prepare students for future PhD studies by providing them with an understanding of how to conduct research and theoretically analyze specific fields of study.
  2. Improved income potential. Individuals with a master's degree earned 16 percent more per those with a bachelor's degree and 67 percent more than those with an associate degree in 2014.
  3. Better job security. Unemployment rates in 2014 were 2.8 percent for individuals with a master's degree, 3.5 percent for bachelor's degree holders, and 6 percent for those with a high school diploma.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Educational Attainment 2014, http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections, http://www.bls.gov/emp/
Center for Education and the Workforce, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/fullreport.pdf
Center for Education and the Workforce, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020, https://cew.georgetown.edu/report/recovery-job-growth-and-education-requirements-through-2020/
Council on Graduate Schools, Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2003 - 2013, http://cgsnet.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/GED_report_2013.pdf
Learning House, 2014 Online College Students, http://www.learninghouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/2014-Online-College-Students-Final.pdf
National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/CDS.aspx

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Thanks to online degrees, a world of academic opportunities is just a click of a mouse away. Keep reading to learn more about distance-based learning programs, degrees offered, and the benefits of online education.


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