Frequently Asked Questions

Students and Education Experts Address the Online Master’s Degree

When it comes to graduate school, planning is everything, from choosing a college and applying to graduating and getting a job. Current students, graduates, professors and enrollment administrators share their knowledge of online master’s degrees to help prospective students find their way to a degree and eventually a career. Find out what they have to say and learn how earning an online master’s degree could help enhance your job prospects.

Meet the Author

Abby Herman

Abby Herman is a former educator who earned a master’s degree in education through a semi-hybrid program at a private university. She currently works as a journalist focused on higher education, K-12 schools, and career exploration for young adults. Abby works and lives in the Phoenix-metro area.

Expert Sources and Partners

Victoria Bowers

Online master’s in nursing with a specialty in education (MSNed)

Sheri Scott

Online Master of Science in education training and performance improvement

Sid Simone

Current online MBA student

John Mittenthal, PhD

Associate professor (online), Master of Science in operations management (MSOM) faculty coordinator & advisor

Jennifer Kelly

Online master’s in early childhood education and educational leadership

Pat Partridge

Marketing and enrollment specialist at an online university

Introduction

Earning a master’s degree, online or traditional, can be a significant financial undertaking, not to mention a big time commitment. To get the most out of a master’s degree, careful planning is key, so before you enroll in a school or program, it is important to do some research.

To help with the process, we’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions regarding online learning at the master’s degree level and presented them to a panel of higher education experts. Drawing from their own experiences with and knowledge of online master’s degrees, they’ve provided valuable firsthand insight and feedback to help prospective students not only prepare for, but also succeed in, an online master’s degree program.

Researching Online Programs

Why should I pursue an online master’s degree?

People choose to pursue a master’s degree online for a variety of reasons. Convenience and flexibility, however, are usually at the top of the list. Earning a degree from home-or anywhere with an Internet connection-offers a variety of benefits, according to Sheri Scott, who earned her master of science in education training and performance improvement online.

“If you have time restraints due to job shifts, child care, health or commuting issues, then I strongly recommend that you accomplish your education online. Online is flexible, therefore, allowing you to create your [own] classroom time.”

What should I look for when researching an online master’s degree program?

It’s important to do your research and find out as much information as possible about your prospective college and academic program. Experts agree that regional accreditation is a must; however, there are other factors to take into consideration. For one, a college with a nearby brick-and-mortar campus can be a bonus.

“Ideally, the same faculty member is teaching the online course while simultaneously offering the course material on campus,” says John Mittenthal, PhD, an associate professor in a master of science in operations management degree program. Mittenthal also serves as faculty coordinator and advisor of the program.

Jennifer Kelly, who earned two master’s degrees online, concurs. “I wanted an online program that also had a physical school so if I needed anything, there was a place to go.” Kelly also looked for a program that had flexible scheduling and 24-hour technical support. “If there is a technology issue at 11 p.m. and I need something turned in by midnight, I want someone to call.”

When is the best time to start an online master’s degree?

Finding the right time to start an online master’s degree can be a challenge. It’s important to look at where you are in your career and whether or not you are able to balance personal, professional and academic responsibilities. Sid Simone, an online MBA student, took his decision to go back to school seriously. He believes that the time is “when you have schedule flexibility and can balance personal, work and school life.”

Mittenthal touts the importance of looking at prerequisites before signing up. “Consult with a program advisor to ensure that the program can be completed within your desired time frame.” Many programs won’t admit students who have not fulfilled the required prerequisites, and having to complete them first will add to the time it takes to complete a master’s degree. For some, this could mean putting the online master’s degree on hold to earn the necessary prerequisites.

How do I know if my online master’s degree is a quality program?

First and foremost, look for regional accreditation. Pat Partridge, marketing and enrollment specialist at an online university, shares that “accreditation is a must-have to ensure that employers and other academic institutions will respect and recognize your master’s degree.”

Victoria Bowers, graduate of an online master’s in nursing education program, offers a few additional tips: “Schools should provide statistics of graduates, such as percentages of those who have passed boards, if applicable, how many have jobs in a related field, and how many have graduated.” Be sure to ask about these statistics as you do your research.

What kind of master’s degrees are available online?

Nowadays, almost every type of master’s degree imaginable is offered online in some form. Some degree programs may necessitate a hybrid-format for hands-on training or laboratory work; however, these programs are generally flexible in the time commitment and location of that in-person requirement. For example, Bowers explains that her online nursing education program included a clinical component. Typically, this would include direct contact with others in the profession or patients for a traditional nursing program. However, because Bowers was in an online program, her instructor allowed her to complete the clinical component online as well.

What are the technology requirements of an online master’s degree?

Technology requirements vary depending on the college and discipline. However, an updated computer with business-compatible software is vital. “Keep your computer current for the best training, especially in the information technology and graphic design fields. You want to train using the most up-to-date software so you are competitive with others when looking for a job,” says Scott.

Kelly notes that her program required Web browsers that were specific to her university in order to upload items. The college should inform you of any requirements when you enroll.

Application Process

What information will I need to apply for an online master’s degree?

The application process for most online master’s programs is similar to that of traditional programs. Specific application requirements will vary, but in general, submission of a completed application, official undergraduate transcripts, relevant test scores and letters of recommendation are required.

When Bowers applied for her online nursing education program, she needed to submit personal information as well as official transcripts from prior colleges. More competitive programs may require high school transcripts, a resume, extracurricular activities and recognitions, references, and even a credit report. The university’s website should provide information on requirements and deadlines. When in doubt, contact an advisor or the college’s admissions office for information

Do I need to have a bachelor’s degree in the field to be accepted to an online master’s program?

First and foremost, look for regional accreditation. Pat Partridge, marketing and enrollment specialist at an online university, shares that “accreditation is a must-have to ensure that employers and other academic institutions will respect and recognize your master’s degree.”

Some colleges may allow you to apply for a master’s program while you are finishing a bachelor’s degree, but most require that applicants hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field prior to applying. An exception to this rule is an RN to MSN bridge program, which completely bypasses the bachelor’s degree, according to Bowers.

Can I get financial aid for an online master’s program?

Federal financial aid is available for students enrolled at an accredited online college who meet certain criteria and have submitted a FAFSA® form. Private grants and scholarships are also available, and some employers will subsidize tuition. Ask your human resources department whether your company has a tuition reimbursement program. If it does, review the rules and requirements carefully as some programs require a specific grade point average or that you stay with the company for a period of time after graduation in order to be reimbursed.

Additionally, the federal government offers loan forgiveness for graduates who work in public service, such as teachers who work in Title I schools. Government agencies, universities and some large companies may also offer research grants for students willing to donate their time to the organization.

For more specific information on financial aid options and eligibility, contact your prospective school’s financial aid office.

Online Curriculum

Is the curriculum in an online master’s degree program different than in a campus-based program?

It depends on the program. Mittenthal, for example, reports that his university’s master of science in operations management program is virtually identical whether taken online or on-campus. Some distance learning students, however, have found that more independent work is required in an online program. Additionally, some assignments may be modified to accommodate online learning, which makes them slightly different from assignments given in traditional classes.

How do I interact with classmates and professors?

Partridge notes that colleges are working hard to ensure that online learning is very much the same as taking classes in a brick-and-mortar program. “Online universities are developing a number of ways for students to connect through chat rooms, webinars, and social media. It’s important to find out what the school is doing to engage and connect with students,” she says.

Indeed, even though students were not in the same physical classroom, Scott had full communication with her professors and peers during her online learning experience. She notes, however, that online students need to be proactive. Scott used online forums and offline study groups and also found some local students with whom she was able to study. “You cannot isolate yourself in an online program,” she warns.

How long does an online master’s degree take?

The length of an online master’s program varies depending on the degree, the program itself and the motivation of the student. Some programs, such as those at the University of Phoenix, start year-round and classes are compressed to just a few weeks, allowing students to complete programs in an accelerated time frame. Other online programs follow a more traditional semester-based calendar and, therefore, can take two to three years to complete.

Will I have to visit campus to earn my online master’s degree?

This depends on your program. Some programs are offered fully online and do not require students to visit campus, while others have some in-person requirements. For example, in her educational leadership degree, Kelly had to take one on-campus course because it was not offered online. Scott, on the other hand, was enrolled at a college that was located several states away. When it was time for her final exams, she had to find a nearby accredited university where she could sit for the test on-site. The local university then mailed her exam to the college where she was enrolled. For her nursing education degree, Bowers was able to complete the program 100 percent online. Check with your college or university for specific online program requirements.

How do I get practical, hands-on experience in an online program?

According to Mittenthal, hands-on experience is not always necessary. “Nearly all of the students in our online program are already employed in the field that they wish to pursue, so this is typically not an issue,” he says. Scott, however, had a different experience. “You must intern, volunteer, and go beyond the homework to educate yourself in the field,” she says. Additionally, some programs that necessitate hands-on experience, such as teaching, will build the requirement into the curriculum. Students can often schedule these obligations around their own personal and professional schedule, within their geographic area.

How will I submit assignments and take tests in an online program?

Most online classes are administered and managed via an online course management system. Blackboard, Taskstream, proprietary university-owned programs, email, Survey Monkey, and other Internet-based programs are the primary modes for submitting assignments.

Exams are administered differently from course to course. Some may allow students to take exams independently online, while others require proctored tests. Or, as in Scott’s case, students may need to visit a local, accredited university or an approved test site in person to complete assessments.

Graduation

Will my degree indicate that it was earned online?

Generally, no. Most colleges award the same type of diploma and do not distinguish between degrees that were earned online or on campus. An exception would be if an online-only university conferred the degree-in that case, a current or prospective employer would know it was an online degree.

Is an online master’s degree equivalent to one earned in a campus-based program?

If the college and program are accredited by an accrediting agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), coursework should be equivalent to a traditional program. Additionally, the requirements to earn an online master’s degree are generally parallel to those for an on-campus degree. In fact, some students may find that an online program is actually more rigorous. “I feel that I had to work harder. I had to research things on my own and work very hard to prove my knowledge,” says Kelly.

Will I get to participate in a graduation ceremony?

Most colleges do allow their distance learning students to participate in the graduation ceremony once all degree requirements have been completed. “You will have to make arrangements to travel to the graduation ceremony-possibly out of state-but you will receive a cap, gown and a ceremony,” Scott reports.

Will my online credits transfer to other schools?

In most cases, yes. Because an online degree from an accredited college is equivalent to a degree earned at a traditional campus, expectations and curriculum tend to be aligned. Check with prospective schools to see which credits can be successful transferred.

Employment

Will earning an online degree affect my employment opportunities?

Yes! Many employers hire, promote and increase compensation based on the individual’s level of education. In terms of your degree being earned online, most employers will recognize and accept the degree if it was earned at an accredited college or university. Accreditation ensures that online programs meet certain academic standards and, therefore, prepare students for the workforce the same way a traditional campus-based program would.

What is the return on investment for someone with an online degree?

This varies widely depending on the industry and individual students’ goals. Simone recommends that prospective students research potential earnings before enrolling in any program. “Financial analysts recommend being in less debt than your projected salary out of school,” he says. “Make sure it is something that can be paid off in three years or less.”

Scott, however, shared a different perspective. She believes that her ROI is the education itself, rather than the potential for more income. “ROI is about how hard you want to work and it will soon shine as others witness your talent.”

Should I tell a prospective employer that I earned my degree online?

Telling a prospective employer that you earned your degree online versus in a more traditional program is up to your personal preference. If your online master’s degree is from an accredited university that offers the same program and curriculum as the on-campus program, there really is no difference. If you do choose to disclose this information, or are asked by a potential employer, you can mention what you learned from the online experience. Earning an online degree requires time management and self-motivation, both of which are important skills in the workplace.

Can I still work full time while earning a degree online?

Many full-time employees choose to earn a degree online, rather than on a traditional campus, specifically because they are working full time. An online master’s degree allows students the flexibility to take classes, view lectures and turn in assignments at their convenience. It’s a great opportunity to earn a master’s degree while still maintaining your professional and personal schedule.