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Evaluating and Selecting an Online Master’s Program

What is accreditation and how can I determine if my program is accredited?

Accreditation is the extensive process of auditing and evaluating a higher-learning institution’s curricular offerings, campus resources, and student outcomes. Today, official accreditation is considered a nationwide standard for colleges and universities.

Private organizations are recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and/or the U.S. Department of Education to handle accreditation. If a college or university is accredited, this information will be prominently visible on the school’s official website, either on the homepage or on an introductory page (i.e., ‘About Us’). If this information is not easily accessible on a school’s site, this might mean the institution has not received accreditation yet, or had its accreditation denied or revoked. The U.S. government maintains a database of currently accredited colleges and universities, which applicants can use to ensure a school’s claim to accreditation is valid. Most academic experts agree students should never consider attending an unaccredited school.

Why accreditation is important:

  • Many financial aid opportunities (federal loans, scholarships, and grants) are only available to students who attend accredited schools.
  • Most institutions do not allow credit transfers from alumni of unaccredited schools or schools whose accreditation has been revoked.

Are online programs legitimate?

When evaluating an online institution’s legitimacy, consider the same things that you would for a traditional brick and mortar institution:

  • Accreditation: A school’s accreditation status should appear on its official website, and the school’s name should be listed in the official U.S. government accreditation database.
  • Resources: Students can usually preview courses and learn more about available resources on the school’s website. These include course-specific forums and chat rooms, technical support, and interactive course materials.
  • Student outcomes: Learn about current or graduated students’ experiences; they will be the most honest review of the program:
    • Are students satisfied with the offerings of a certain online program?
    • Does the school retain a high percentage of student enrollments from year-to-year?
    • What are the average grades students receive?

Annual academic reports (like this publication from DeVry University) can be valuable guides to the quality of a school’s student outcomes.

Will jobs recognize online degrees?

A recent report from New York Daily News found that the stigma against online degree earners is gradually diminishing. Although employers by and large prefer candidates with traditional degrees and are still hesitant to hire students who receive their education from unaccredited online programs or “diploma mills,” many companies today consider all master’s degrees to be equal, whether they were earned online or on-campus.

A growing number of students who enroll in at least one online course per semester has helped shift this perception of web-based education, as have the large number of prominent schools (including Harvard, Stanford, and MIT) that currently offer online degree programs.

How long does it take to earn a master’s degree online?

One-year programs

One-year (or ‘accelerated’) programs allow students to earn a master’s degree in roughly half the time as those who enroll in traditional programs. Generally, accelerated programs require the same number of credits as a two-year degree; courses typically last one month, as opposed to one quarter or semester, and individual class sessions may entail hours of lecturing and coursework.

Dual and joint programs

Some online schools offer programs that award two degrees to students. These programs are commonly categorized as either dual or joint degrees.

  • Dual degree: This program includes education for a master’s degree, as well as a degree of a different level. The other degree may be lower (i.e. bachelor’s) or higher (i.e. PhD) than the master’s, or it may be a professional degree; dual MBA and JD degrees, for example, are somewhat common.
  • Joint degree: Typically, these degrees (also known as ‘interdisciplinary’ degrees) combine two academic subjects from different departments. Examples include master’s degrees in business administration and information technology, journalism and environmental science, or political science and economics.

How are online programs different from on-campus programs?

Can I use financial aid/scholarships to pay for an online program?

Virtually all accredited online programs allow students to partially or fully fund their education using loans, scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid. Please visit our Financial Aid section for more information.

Are online programs easier to get into?

Like traditional degrees, some online programs have stringent admissions policies and only admit a handful of new students each year, while others accept a larger number of applicants. Ultimately, a candidate’s chances of admission depend on the strength of his or her application, entrance examination scores, letters of recommendation and other submitted materials (please visit the step-by-step Application Guide for more information about application requirements).

How do online programs deal with labs?

Generally, there are two ways to satisfy laboratory requirements in an online master’s program. Blended degrees typically include on-campus lab work. 100% online programs, on the other hand, allow students to log into a web-based lab program; these assignments often rely on interactive technology, and are designed to mirror real-life lab procedures. Fields of study that incorporate lab work include medicine, technology, biology, chemistry, and engineering.

Are there online “research” programs?

Yes. Online master’s degrees in clinical research are available from institutions like Arizona State University, Drexel University, and Walden University. Additionally, other graduate-level online programs require students to perform a significant amount of academic research. Many web-based institutions give their students access to extensive online libraries in order to conduct thorough research.

Will I develop a strong bond with my professor in an online program?

Yes; but like a traditional program, it depends entirely on the effort the student puts into building those relationships. Although online students see their professors much less in person than brick-and-mortar learners might, most online courses are designed to facilitate consistent dialogue between students and faculty members. Email, chat rooms, and web forums often take the place of classrooms and faculty offices.

What are the downsides to an online program?

One notable disadvantage of online education is the longstanding public perception (particularly among employers) that web-based learning is inferior to the classroom-based model. A 2013 survey of human resources professionals from U.S. News & Report found that 56% of respondents preferred to hire job applicants with a “traditional” degree. However, that number is declining all the time.

Overall, researchers have concluded that there are no significant differences between online and face-to-face student achievement.

As a 2010 entry in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT)

Student experience is another factor to consider. Although many prominent online colleges and universities strive to create an enjoyable, meaningful experience for students, some individuals still prefer an educational model that fosters face-to-face interaction and collaboration. Ultimately, each student must decide which type of learning best suits their educational needs and preferences.

What questions do I need to ask before I apply?

Speaking with admissions officials at different institutions will help applicants understand the overall costs, student resources, and other program-specific factors that stand to impact their final decision. When contacting these officials, be sure to pose the following questions:

  • What is the tuition over time?
  • What are the retention/graduation rates?
  • Are there specific financial aid options for students in my area of study?
  • What are the career prospects of graduating from this program?
  • How active is the alumni network?
  • Finally, always remember to ask yourself: What is important to me? What do I need to happen in order to make my plan work?

Additional Resources for Program Selection

  • The MastersDegree.com Program Directory: We pride ourselves on having the most complete directory of online master’s degrees found in the education world. And while comprehensive, the various organizational filters mean the tool is able to produce a unique and selective list for every inquiring student.
  • US News Graduate School Rankings: US News is one of the most-used sites for college and graduate school rankings. You can browse all graduate schools or filter by speciality (engineering, education, or biology, for instance).
  • Best Grad Schools for Particular Degrees: This article summarizes and highlights 2015’s best schools, according to US News, for programs such as law, business and education. It is a good overview of program rankings and can help prospective students direct their initial search.
  • Peterson’s Graduate School Search: Like US News, Peterson’s compiles and ranks graduate schools across the country. The site breaks down programs by level and subject and is searchable by keyword.
  • The Princeton Review Grad School Search: Princeton Review is another well known school ranking organization, and it maintains a thorough database of graduate programs and schools. The search tool can help you narrow down the schools that would fit your major or interests.
  • Best Master’s Degrees for Jobs: Compiled by Forbes, this article breaks down the master’s degrees that present the best (and worst) opportunities for employment after graduation.
  • Top 15 Online Master’s Degrees: Kiplinger presents a list of the best online programs. Each program description includes information on length, cost, travel required, and department characteristics.
  • Top Grad Schools for Entrepreneurship: With the demand for entrepreneurs growing yearly, this list may be helpful to grad students with a wide variety of interests.
  • Rate My Professors: If you are interested in a particular school but want more information on potential future professors, this site has ratings from previous students. While not every school or professor is listed, it is a helpful ancillary resource.
  • Students Review: Similar to the site above, this page allows you to search for both schools and professors in order to see ratings from current or former students. Again, while subjective, the tool can give you a sense of whether students’ feelings about a school are generally positive or negative.