Between academic years 2009-2010 and 2018-2019, the number of master’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions in the United States increased from 693,000 to 833,700, that is, by 20% (NCES, 2021). With a large percentage of continuing higher education institutions shifting to online learning, we can expect that the number of master’s degrees that will be conferred will rise even further in the coming years. This will have a huge positive impact on the economic outcomes of students.
An online master’s degree can help secure graduates from job automation risks, increase their salary rates, make them less susceptible to unemployment, and allow them to pay their remaining student debt (if any) faster than the average time it usually takes. This article aims to inform readers about further reasons to take the online path to graduate education, from e-learning trends to stakeholder experiences to career outcomes. It will also give readers insights into the differences between online and traditional learning, inform them about the popular online master’s degree fields, and give strategies for choosing, planning, and preparing for graduate school.
There are five main reasons why you should consider taking an online master’s degree: (1) E-learning trends are pointing in this direction, (2) Enrollment rates and distance education participation are increasing, (3) Students and faculty report having good experiences and positive attitude toward online learning, (4) Employers give the same amount of credit to online and traditional education, and (5) Graduates from online degrees reported positive career outcomes. For a more detailed look, read the following sections.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, global digitalization has been accelerated by two years (Hamilton & Quinlan, 2021). As in many industries, the education sector is shifting to digital. Some experts claim that this shift has been long overdue. Nonetheless, the shift is here, changing the landscape of higher education and posing a challenge to traditional classroom learning.
The engagement of higher education institutions (HEIs) in digital transformation has grown from 13% in 2019 to 44% in 2021 (Educause, 2021). Further, 46% more HEIs are either in the process of developing or exploring digital transformation (Educause, 2021).
A recent report by Global Market Insights predicts that the global e-learning market will amount to $1 trillion by 2027. Along with this growth, experts are seeing an increase in the use of learning management systems (LMS), mobile e-learning, video-based learning, gamification, augmented and virtual reality in the online classroom, and learning analytics, to name a few.
An online master’s degree will ensure that graduate students are acquainted with the latest emerging technologies.
Source: Educause, 2021
There is an upward trend in enrollment in online master’s degree programs. According to the most recent data from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), 1.3 million or more than 4 in 10 post-baccalaureate students in the United States attended at least one distance education course during Fall 2019. Moreover, one million graduate students attended exclusively online classes.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports a 4% increase in master’s degree enrollment in Spring 2021. All regions in America had an increased graduate enrollment: 4.8% in the West, 1.8% in the Midwest, and 1.6% in the Northeast, but the growth is highest in South America (7.8%). Enrollment in primarily online institutions is also up by 6.9% at the graduate level, with a 6.8% increase in full-time students and 7% in part-time students.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2021
The majority of students (57%) and faculty (58%) have a more optimistic attitude toward online learning after experiencing it first-hand during the pandemic (Inside Higher Ed, 2021). Forty-eight percent of students and faculty are also more optimistic about the use of digital materials in the classroom (Inside Higher Ed, 2021). In fact, another study shows that 74% of faculty who are using e-texts, instructional tools, or courseware believe that they positively affect student learning (Fox et al., 2021).
Online education is here to stay. Many students continue to want to take fully online classes even after the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions, in turn, are offering more online classes and providing more support for their faculty in this transition. More than half of the faculty are already receiving support for courseware implementation (Fox et al., 2021).
Institutional support is the key to further improving the online education experience of students and faculty. This we cannot get while simultaneously questioning its worth and quality. We must remember that the mode of instruction will inevitably change as a result of technological advancements and as part of the ongoing evolution of the human race.
Gallagher, in 2018, wrote the Educational Credentials Come of Age: A Survey on the Use and Value of Educational Credentials in Hiring, which gives us the following statistical data on employer’s perception of an online degree:
In a recent study by Gallup and 2U, 97% of graduate students reported positive career outcomes from acquiring an online degree. These include goal achievement (57%), salary increase (53%), a fulfilling career path (60% of white and 58% of black graduate students), and general life satisfaction (89%). Forty-six percent are also thriving in the career area of their wellbeing.
Source: Gallup-2U, 2020
In this section, online and traditional master’s degree programs will be compared in terms of cost, reputation, quality, flexibility, social interaction, and support services. Looking at these aspects will help students decide which mode of instruction fits them better.
In a survey of member institutions of the Association for Continuing Higher Education, Inc., 61% stated that online education cost for in-state students is the same as on-campus rate while 22% said it is lower (Magda, 2018). For out-state students, on the other hand, 59% said the rates are the same and 24% said that online education is more affordable (Magda, 2018).
According to Purdue, online education courses cost only $420 to $700 per credit quarter-hour. This matters because online education cost continues to rise in America. Also, the overall student debt has now ballooned to $1.6 trillion and affects over 40 million Americans. Now, in 2019, Garret wrote an article exploring how online education can help solve this crisis. He explained that institutions spend much less when classes are 90-100% online, with an average expenditure of only $5,110 per student, compared to traditional education that cost $23,781 per student in Fall 2017.
Online graduate students will benefit as much as HEIs because colleges and universities offer discounts and free items to attract students.
Source: Magda, 2018
Most employers (58%) regard institutional reputation as a determinant of credential value, regardless if it is gained online or in-person. Top universities are offering both online and traditional education. However, the competition among them nowadays is more in the online arena.
Wiley Education Services (WES) reports that competition among online programs is growing at 19% annually. As of 2016, 38% of degree programs have already gone online (WES, 2021). Between the years 2012 and 2016, the total growth of distance education is 98%.
In a recent survey, 43% of students, 36% of faculty, and 18% of administrators gave an A grade for how well online courses in Fall 2020 met educational needs (McKenzie, 2021). Meanwhile, 30% of students, 45% of faculty, and 56% of administrators gave it a grade of B (McKenzie, 2021).
An earlier survey shows that graduates of online degree programs are thriving in different areas of their wellbeing (Gallup-2U, 2020). They strongly agree that they have received the academic (79%) and career preparation (82%) they need and have been prepared by their online master’s degrees for life after graduation (85%) (Gallup-2U, 2020).
Teachers are also generally confident in terms of the quality of education their online students received. Sixty-five percent of them are either somewhat or extremely satisfied with the learning outcomes of their students last Fall 2020.
Source: Fox et al., 2020
Time and location flexibility are two of the most advantageous aspects of online education for three reasons. First, students can choose to study in universities out-of-state without the additional costs of room and board, transportation, and even fees for on-campus facilities. Second, students can study at a time convenient to them, especially if they choose a degree program with mostly asynchronous classes. And lastly, online students actually spend 40-60 less time studying and yet retain 12%-50% more knowledge than in traditional learning (Gutierrez, 2016).
Source: Fox et al., 2020Designed by
Perhaps the biggest misconception about online education is that students will not have a chance to interact with each other. Contrary to that, research shows that 6 in 10 students regularly interacted with their classmates, either in person or online, while taking online classes (Gallup-2U, 2020).
It is important to understand that today’s students are digital citizens. They interact with each other mainly through social media and other online platforms. While this mode of interaction is different, its quality and value reside with other outside factors, such as the people involved and their surrounding environment.
Whether attending online or traditional education, individuals who want to interact with their classmates can and will. Meantime, individuals who do not want any kind of interaction will just find it easier to do if they choose to go for an online degree program.
In 2002, WICHE Cooperative Online Student Services introduced a conceptual framework of student services for online learners. It divided the services into the following categories: (1) administrative, (2) academic, (3) personal, (4) communications, and (5) student communities. All these are important to the well-being and learning outcome of graduate students and are offered along with quality online master’s degree programs. Institutions that have these services offer it to both traditional and online students.
For graduate students, mental health support services are particularly important for both continuing amidst and coping with the pandemic. Sadly, only 58% of HEIs promote mental and well-being among graduate students (Council of Graduate Schools and The Jed Foundation, 2021). Support for minorities is also limited for them, with only 48% of campus resources for black students, 48% for LGBTQ+ students, and 47% for Latinx students.
The number of degree programs is growing over time. In this section, the four largest disciplines in online learning will be discussed. Emerging disciplines and other graduate degree programs will also be tackled.
According to the State of the Graduate Education Market: Trends and Insights in Key Master Disciplines, the four largest key disciplines in master’s degree programs are (1) Business, (2) Education, (3) Health, and (4) Public Administration and Social Services. In all these disciplines, there is an upward trend in the number and growing competition among online degree programs.
An online master’s degree in business is the top choice of graduate students. Considering the number of businesses going online, graduate education in this field will surely translate into real-world work. With a master’s degree, business professionals can either seek employment as a manager or CEO in top companies or start their own business venture.
Here are some key figures about an online master’s degree in business:
There is a 16% decline in the number of master’s in education graduates from 2010 to 2016. This is unfortunate because there will be 441,000 new openings for teaching positions in 2029 (BLS, 2021). If the trend in supply does not tick upward soon, there will be a shortage of teachers in the coming years.
Here are some key figures about an online master’s degree in education:
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the need for more graduates of master’s in health-related programs. The good news is between the years 2010 and 2016, the number of graduates in this field has grown by 70% (WES, 2021).
Here are some key figures about an online master’s degree in health:
This is the best online master’s degree for service-oriented individuals. Pursuing graduate studies in this field will allow for the flourishing of an individual’s leadership, management, and communication skills, among others.
Here are some key figures about an online master’s degree in public administration and social services:
Source: Wiley Education Services, 2020
Cybersecurity and Data Analytics are the two emerging disciplines highlighted by experts in a report by Wiley Education Services. An online master’s degree in these fields will allow students to build the necessary skills and thrive in career markets with a very positive outlook. For instance, with an online master’s degree in cybersecurity, graduate students may become Information Security Analysts and earn around $103,590 annually (BLS, 2021). Someone with a degree related to data analytics, on the other hand, can pursue a career as a business analyst or a data scientist. The latter earns $ 165,230 annually on average (BLS, 2021).
Below is a list of master’s degree programs that are not as popular as the ones listed above but are still very much worthy of consideration.
This section discusses two of the most crucial decisions involved in choosing an online master’s degree. It will give students insight into what field of study would best fit them and what type of institution may be able to serve their beliefs and priorities better.
Here are some considerations for choosing a graduate field of study:
The first step in selecting an academic institution for a graduate degree program is checking if it is accredited by the U.S. Education Department. After that, there are categories in which education institutions may fall into that graduate students must be aware of.
The application process is a crucial period for prospective graduate students. They will need to be their best selves at this point to maximize their chances of getting into a good degree program. Below are some insights on the admission process to help guide them. Information on how to successfully get into a degree program and how to get financial assistance to support graduate studies are also provided.
During the admission process you will be required to submit the following documents:
Source: Wiley Education Services, 2020
Here are some strategies that will help you get into your target graduate school:
Graduate students may apply for financial aid from the federal or state government or the school system they are applying to.
There are four types of federal student financial aid for graduate students: (1) The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, (2) Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education or TEACH Grant, (3) Federal Work-Study or FWS Program, and (4) Federal Pell Grant. Aside from these, other federal agencies also give student aid for graduate education (FSA, 2017).
Most states and school systems also offer financial aid. For these, you have to check with the state grant agency and the school’s financial aid office (FSA, 2017).
After getting into a degree program, students must thoroughly prepare for their online classes. Provided in this section is a list of the technological requirements for students and some tips on how to prepare for online learning.
Prepare the following technological requirements for your online graduate study:
Here are some tips to help you prepare for attending graduate school:
Pursuing a master’s degree is perhaps the second-best learning decision an individual can make in the middle of a pandemic. Staying safe while at it is the first. Online education gives graduate students the flexibility they need to get through this crisis safely and with a degree.
The sentiment is highlighted in a study published in the Journal of Information Technology Case and Application Research, the authors noting, “Whatever the short or medium-term outcomes, the very tenacity of this pandemic will ensure that we will be forced to continue our love affair with current online teaching practices. We, therefore have an opportunity to undertake online education’s next renaissance, knowing it will be around seemingly well into the future” (Dick, Akbulut, & Matta, 2020).
Graduate students have a key role to perform in the new normal, whether it be in higher education or elsewhere. An online degree will empower them to make a change in their lives and the lives of others.