2021 Best Online Master's Programs
Online Master's Degrees with the Highest Return on Investment
Using student salary and debt data from the government, we have developed the first online master's program rankings that showcase the online colleges and universities with the best return on investment (ROI). We calculated an ROI percentile for each online master's degree program by comparing the 10-year ROI value against the average for similar programs. We ranked the schools with the highest average percentile scores that offered online programs at the master's degree level in at least three different subject areas. The highest-ranked schools typically offered online master's programs in business, computer science, and education. On this page, we also dive into earning a master's degree online and how that compares to the in-person experience, the importance of accreditation, the cost of a degree, and whether earning an online master's degree will be worth it for you.
Students pursuing an accredited online master's program can browse our thorough list of options, including 587 colleges and 16,919 degree programs. The following comprehensive list of online master's programs includes accredited programs in fields like accounting, computer science, healthcare administration, management, nursing, and nutrition, and outlines how many online programs are available in each field of study. Average salaries for each program were calculated using earnings in the first year after graduation sourced from the 2020 release of the Department of Education's College Scorecard.
|a||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|b||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|c||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|d||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|Data Science||122||229||Not reported||Institutional|
|e||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|Elementary Education||130||297||$47,270||CAEP MACTE NCATE TEAC|
|f||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|h||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|Healthcare Informatics||104||207||$73,670||CAHIIM CAHME|
|Holistic Medicine||5||5||$28,240||ACAOM CNME|
|Human Resources||167||317||$61,020||AACSB ACBSP|
|i||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|l||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|m||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|Marriage & Family Therapy||27||70||$43,020||AAMFT COAMFTE|
|MBA||414||2,377||$78,150||AACSB ACBSP IACBE|
|Medical Office Administration||2||2||$65,500||ABHES|
|n||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|Nurse Practitioner (NP)||111||286||$97,500||ACEN ACEN CCNE NPWH|
|Nursing||262||1,186||$97,500||AANA ACEN ACEN ACME CCNE|
|o||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|p||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|Project Management||124||232||$78,150||AACSB PMI-GAC|
|r||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|RN to MSN||51||110||Not reported||Institutional|
|s||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|Secondary Education||108||311||$47,270||CAEP NCATE TEAC|
|Special Education||227||691||$52,040||CAA CAEP|
|Substance Abuse Counseling||32||42||$43,020||CACREP|
|Supply Chain Management||104||157||$78,150||Institutional|
|t||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
|Teaching||284||1,182||$48,740||CAEP MACTE NCATE TEAC|
|w||Online Schools||Programs||Annual Salary||Accreditation|
Best Online Master's Programs Highlights
Overview: Online Master's Degrees
Can You Get a Graduate Degree Online?
Yes, you can earn a master's degree online. More than 580 accredited colleges offer fully online master's programs in more than 100 disciplines. An accredited online master's degree demonstrates advanced knowledge of a particular subject and can carry the same prestige as an in-person degree.
The number of online degree programs has been growing for years as improving technology creates better, more affordable student experiences. Enrollment in online master's programs has outpaced bachelor's programs, likely because many graduate students are working adults who may find it more convenient to complete a master's degree online. For example, a typical student of the online MBA program at Ohio University is 33 years old and has 8-10 years of work experience, a profile that's remarkably similar for online master's students at Franklin University and likely at other online programs.
An accredited online master's degree demonstrates advanced knowledge of a particular subject and can carry the same prestige as an in-person degree.
How Long Does It Take to Complete a Master's Degree Program?
On average, it takes graduate students 1.5-2 years of full-time study to complete a master’s program, regardless of whether it's earned online or on campus. This may vary if the student enrolls on a part-time basis or applies transfer credits to the program. Most online master's programs fall between 30 and 60 credits, with full-time students taking 12-15 credits per term and able to complete 30 credits per year. For example, St. Joseph's University estimates that students can complete its 30-credit Master of Science in Cybersecurity in as few as 12 months of full-time study.
Some colleges feature 5-6 eight-week terms each year to allow students to take more classes annually and potentially finish a master's degree in one year. Most of these are for-profit schools, but not all of them — for example, the nonprofit University of Arizona offers six terms of 7.5 weeks each year for online students. Note that many master's students prefer to take classes part time on top of jobs and other responsibilities.
- Typical time to completion: 1.5 - 2 years
- Typical credits needed: 30 - 60
Should I Get a Master's Degree?
Getting a master's degree is a significant time and financial investment. Many people pursue graduate degrees to increase their earning potential or broaden their career opportunities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has identified the career paths where workers earn more with a master's degree than a bachelor's degree. These fields are business, education, healthcare and social services, and STEM.
Comparing the Online and In-Person Experiences
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 40% of U.S. graduate students were taking at least one online class in the fall of 2018, with 30% taking exclusively online courses. This is about 1.2 million students, though some of them are studying for doctoral or professional degrees rather than master's degrees.
Students may be wondering what distance learning will look like from day to day, and how they'll experience courses differently from how they would in person. Most online master's degree programs offer asynchronous learning options so that students can log in to their classes to watch lectures and work on assignments at any time. Professors usually require a minimum number of discussion posts from students each week and assign group projects to keep online programs as interactive as possible. Some courses require synchronous attendance at lectures, though this is less common and the lectures are usually during evening hours to accommodate working students. Some programs are designed with short on-campus residency periods to orient students and encourage cohort camaraderie.
Are Online Master's Degrees Respected?
Accreditation is the key factor in determining whether your online master's degree will have value and be respected. If you want a prospective employer to respect your education, choose a degree from school that volunteers to meet standardized quality criteria set by an accrediting institution. We list the accreditation information for all colleges on our site.
Accreditation is the key factor in determining whether your online master's degree will have value and be respected.
Unless you attend an exclusively online college, your employer may not even know you earned your degree online. Although perceptions of online education are changing as more students enroll in these programs, most colleges understand the lingering stigma around online degrees. Many of them don't distinguish between online and traditional programs in their transcripts and diplomas.
What's the Easiest Master's Degree to Get Online?
Many students are drawn to online master's programs because of the flexibility they provide. With so many choices online, you may be wondering what the easiest degree will be. Subject matter that you find easy may be difficult for other people, so one answer won't cover every individual, but there are some factors that help determine how difficult a program will be. These include admissions requirements (more exclusive colleges might feature more difficult programs), the length of the program (you may stay motivated if you're on track to finish quickly), the level of student support the school offers, and what culminating projects or experiences are required (e.g., research paper or internship). You can get a sense of these factors from the web pages of individual programs and from reading reviews from real students and alumni.
You might also wonder which programs are easiest to find in the online format. The fields with the most choices for online master's degrees are business and management, nursing, education, and engineering. Each discipline offers hundreds or even thousands of accredited programs to choose from, varying in length from 12-36 months. These degrees often require an experiential component, such as an internship, student teaching, or nursing clinicals.
Applying to Online Master's Programs
Once you've found a program that fits your needs, the next step is to apply. Though schools have different procedures and requirements, some elements are common to all.
Colleges usually require a minimum undergraduate GPA from master's applicants because they want students who will demonstrate mastery of a subject within 1-3 years.
You may need to gather and submit letters of recommendation from professors or managers, an essay or statement of purpose, and a resume detailing relevant professional experience.
Many schools require minimum scores on the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) test or, for business students, the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT).
These admissions criteria from the University of Washington's Department of Mechanical Engineering provide a representative example.
How Much Does an Online Master's Degree Cost?
The cost of an online master's program will vary by the school and subject. Annual tuition rates range from around $2,700 to about $60,000 a year, and the average tuition for schools on our best-of list is $21,116. Although tuition makes up the largest percentage of total college cost, it isn't the whole story. Schools charge a range of fees, including technology fees and a graduation assessment for students in their final term. Online students will need to buy books and the occasional software package, and they need to ensure access to a high-speed internet connection. Costs can be partially or mostly defrayed by financial aid from a variety of sources, including federal and state aid, institutional grants and scholarships, and loans (which you'll need to repay with interest).
Annual tuition rates range from around $2,700 to about $60,000 a year, and the average tuition for schools on our best-of list is $21,116.
In addition to the up-front cost of tuition and related fees, it may be helpful to consider future earnings. Our ROI scores can help you weigh a program's upfront cost against the likelihood that it will pay off later. The scores show that a more expensive education doesn't necessarily lead to greater earning potential mid-career — for example, the second- and third-ranked schools on the master's degree list both cost less than the fourth- and fifth-ranked schools.
What Is the Cheapest Way to Get a Master's Degree?
Earning an online master's degree can be a more affordable route, whether you attend a public or private college. Many schools charge a flat tuition rate to online students regardless of where they live. This rate is often lower than the on-campus rate because colleges can enroll more online students without making costly infrastructure upgrades.
Another way to lower the cost of your degree is to finish the program more quickly. Some schools offer accelerated online degrees with short academic terms that run end to end, which allows students to take more courses per year. Schools with generous transfer policies can also accelerate degree completion, especially if they offer prior learning assessments that grant credits for work, volunteering, or other life experiences. For example, Thomas Edison University allows students to submit a portfolio to earn credit for extracurricular experience.
Is an Online Master's Degree Worth It?
Earning a master's degree can be costly in money and time, but the effort can lead to significant payoff: the average professional with a master's earns a median of $13,000 more each year than someone with only a bachelor's degree and experiences less unemployment over the course of their career. An online program can provide extra flexibility to make a master's degree especially attainable.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the value of a master's degree. People with advanced degrees were more likely to start a new job in 2020 than those with less education (this data includes doctorates and professional degrees such as M.D.s and J.D.s). The sudden universal pivot into online learning in 2020 may also lead to an increase in the quality of online master's degrees, further eroding any lingering stigma about distance education programs.
Online degrees involve less interaction with classmates and faculty, so students will likely forego some opportunities for networking, social connection, and perhaps personalized instruction. Depending on your learning style and the discipline, you may prefer to work asynchronously and separate from classmates. The online experience can also help prepare you for remote work, an increasing trend in many sectors of the economy. You'll need to weigh all these factors to decide whether an online master's degree is a good fit for you.