It can pay to invest in your higher education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals with a master's degree earn 21.4% more than those with only an undergraduate degree. In addition, many fields require a master's for entry-level roles (economists, sociologists, occupational therapists, etc.) and for others, a master's is needed for advancement. A master's degree is also a great way to pivot a career from one field to another. An MBA is a great example of this.
Online degrees have become more accepted in recent years. The popularity of online-only universities, which allow students to learn at their own pace and time, have pushed traditional, in-person only universities to offer their own online programs. In 2016, 31% of all master's degrees awarded were to students who had been enrolled in 100% online programs. This is up from 23% in 2012. COVID-19 has accelerated the number of online students seeking these types of degrees because they offer not only a top-notch education, but also provide a safe environment for learning.
Despite the growing interest in online education, not all online master's programs offer the same benefits. If you are a prospective graduate student who wants to learn more about some of the best online master's programs, we reviewed more than 100 programs before selecting these top seven to help you get you started.
The Best Online Master's Programs of 2020
- Best Overall: University of Southern California
- Best Value: Western Governors University
- Best Online MBA: Indiana University
- Best for Master's of Education: University of Illinois
- Best for Computer Science: North Carolina State
- Best for Sports Management: University of Florida
- Best for Criminal Justice: Michigan State University
Best Overall: University of Southern California
With more than 80 programs through 16 colleges, University of Southern California (USC) offers one of the most comprehensive ranges of high-quality, online master's degrees available. It is also ranked first overall for online master's by BestColleges, and individually most of their programs are top-ranked by U.S. News & World Report.
Whether online or on-campus, the coursework and professors are the same
USC programs offer one of the most diverse student bodies
Over 100 online master's degrees offered
Tuition is amongst the highest compared to other online master's programs
Founded in 1880, USC was a pioneer in distance learning when in 1972 it broadcasted engineering classes, by microwave technology, to various locations across southern California. We selected USC as the best overall because it offers more than 100 online master's degrees, most of which are in the top 10 in various rankings.
USC has tailored its online master's programs to make the online learning experience more like the in-person programs. For any of their programs available online, the courses and the professors are the same and the classes can be attended in real-time virtually at the same time as the scheduled on-campus class. They can also be viewed asynchronously later on your own schedule. Online and in-person registrants for a given class are pooled for an enrollment limit to ensure the academic support is sufficient for that class, whether the student is studying online or in-person.
As a prestigious, private university, a USC online master's degree is among the most expensive. An MBA is about $74,000 and an MS in Computer Science is about $60,000, for example. USC is also well-endowed and offers various forms of student aid to help keep these costs down.
USC requires an online application, and while other requirements vary by program, most require an undergraduate degree, letters of reference, transcripts, and a written personal statement. Normally the GRE or GMAT is required.
Best Value: Western Governors University
We chose Western Governors University for best value because it provides the right balance of high-quality graduate education at an affordable cost, offered with a true 100% online only delivery.
The school's unique "competency based" learning model allows students to advance at their own pace and complete degrees in less time
One of the most affordable online master's degrees available
Offers fixed tuition per six months, allowing students to complete their degrees at a significant savings
Students have the opportunity to begin taking classes the first of each month, year-round
The program is limited to only four colleges and 12 degrees
Limited interaction with other students
Western Governors University (WGU) was founded by 19 U.S. Governors in 1997 to meet the need for quality, affordable, online education. WGU is a clear choice for the best value for offering a high-quality, 100% online graduate education at an affordable cost. Plus, students can complete their coursework at their own pace and earn a degree in less time and save money.
WGU’s concept of knowledge-based learning allows students to earn a high-quality master's degree at a substantially lower cost than a comparable in-person or online program (it costs less than $13,000 for an MS in Educational Leadership, for instance). Plus, students pay a fixed cost per six-month period, creating an incentive for students to move at a faster pace, and often degrees are completed in less than the traditional time of other master's programs. Each student sets their own pace, but generally, these online master's programs can be completed in 18 to 24 months.
In addition, all instruction and learning is delivered through e-books and other online content, so there is no extra cost beyond tuition. WGU offers 12 online master's degree programs through four colleges (business, education, information technology, and health professions).
WGU also assigns each student a mentor who monitors their learning progress and helps them overcome any educational challenges. All competency and knowledge assessments are examined by third-party evaluators. Communication with professors is online and one-to-one. There is limited interaction with other students.
The online application process is simple: All students must participate in a short interview to confirm course expectations and provide transcripts from an accredited undergraduate program. Some additional requirements may exist, depending on the program.
Best MBA: Indiana University (Kelley School of Business)
The Indiana University Kelley School of Business is our top choice for an online MBA because the program offers the right balance between online coursework with interactive and periodic in-person learning. The school also is ranked No. 1 by both U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review.
Offers a great match of live, immersive learning and at-your-own-pace learning
Offers the flexibility for the student to tailor the program to fit their interests
The online program offers incredible demographic diversity among its student body
No extra cost for out-of-state or international students
Despite being a state school, the program is among one of the more expensive
Full-time working students should be aware that the program requires some in-person immersive learning
Indiana University was founded in 1820 and awarded its first online degrees in 1989. Our top pick for online MBAs, the online MBA from the Kelley School of Management has continued to find the right approach between online and in-person learning and networking. It was ranked No. 1 by both U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review in 2020.
The courses are delivered through a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning supplemented with periodic, in-person immersive interaction.
This online program offers seven degrees, including business analytics, entrepreneurship, finance, and others, and with 50% of the student’s credit hours being electives, this program is one of the most flexible we evaluated. It is designed to be completed in two years, but it can be extended to four years.
With students from more than 30 countries, all 50 U.S. states, and an overall student body that's 11% military and 29% female with an average of nine years of work experience, the program offers the chance to learn alongside a diverse set of classmates.
As a state school with no out-of-state or international premium, the program cost of $74,520 is among the most expensive, but it's comparable to the cost of other elite MBA programs.
The online application can be submitted any time, and enrollment starts at two different times during the year. Transcripts are required, along with a GMAT or GRE. A statement of purpose and letters of reference are also required, along with an interview.
Best for Master's of Education: University of Illinois
The University of Illinois online master's in education is our top choice for those pursuing an advanced degree in education because it is one of the pioneers of distance learning and offers one of the most affordable degrees for such a prestigious program. It consistently ranks in the top 10 programs among various graduate rankings, including U.S. News & World Report.
Offers highly rated programs at an affordable cost
In-state, out-of-state, and international tuition is the same
100% online with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning
Offers eight different areas of study
Requires a mandatory real-time class every week
Only one of the eight majors focuses on a particular subject (biology)
The University of Illinois was founded in 1867 and, with more than 50 Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners having graduated or serving as faculty, it is world-recognized as an institution of higher learning. Among the pioneers in online education, the University of Illinois awarded its first fully online degrees starting in 2000.
The program has fully embraced online education. Not only does it explicitly call out that the professors are interchangeable between the in-person and online classes, but there is no difference in tuition cost for in-state and out-of-state students.
The curriculum is also one of the most diverse, with a focus on learning styles across cultures of origin, disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and primary language. The program offers eight areas of study, including bilingual/bi-cultural, learning design and leadership, digital learning, and others.
The online master's in education at the University of Illinois is one of the least expensive at $15,680 for the whole program (fees and books are not included) and it can be completed in as few as four semesters, which is one of the reasons we picked it as the best online master's degrees for education. With a mix of real-time classes with your professors and classes that you can take on your own schedule, students have plenty of opportunities to interact with other students and faculty.
The application can be easily completed online and requires references, a personal statement, a resume, and a transcript showing at least a 3.0 GPA for the last two years of your undergraduate studies. The GRE is not required. Some additional program-specific requirements exist.
Best for Computer Science: North Carolina State University
The North Carolina State University's online master's in computer science is our top choice for computer science because it offers three different degrees to choose from and is one of the most intellectually challenging programs for any student seeking to further their learning. It is consistently ranked in the top 10 on various graduate school program rankings, including seventh by U.S. News & World Report.
The online master;s is one of the most comprehensive and offers three different majors
The option to learn on your own schedule offers flexibility for working professionals
As a state school, the cost of the program's degrees is among the lowest
The program is limited to students living in the U.S. (military based outside the U.S. are allowed)
North Carolina State University was founded in 1887. With over 40 online master's degrees, three of which are computer science-related and ranked in the top 10, we chose this program as the best for computer science because the prestigious program is both affordable and flexible while also offering rigorous coursework and award-winning faculty who have deep experience in the field.
The three computer science degrees offered are computer science, computer networking, and computer engineering—all designed for students with significant computing backgrounds.
This is a 10 course/31 credit hour program and is an economical option for in-state students at about $13,800. Even out-of-state students will see this program as a good value, prived at just over $40,000, compared to alternatives.
The full program is designed to take two years to complete, but it is flexible and can be completed within six years. All learning is online with lectures delivered via downloads from the professor and assignments and questions exchanged electronically. Access to professors is similar to on-campus programs. Message board interaction is available with other students.
The online application is standard and, depending on the program, there are various prerequisite courses. Transcripts from a computer science or similar undergraduate program with at least a 3.0 GPA is required. The GRE is also a prerequisite.
Best for Sports Management: University of Florida
The University of Florida online master's in sports management provides four different majors and leverages the deep athletic traditions of the university, both on and off the field. That’s why it is our top choice for sport management, and it was also ranked No. 1 by BestColleges.
All classes can be taken on your own time
Program completion is flexible
Among the most affordable sports management master's programs
Offers a strong balance between a theoretical and a practical education
The 100% asynchronous learning may limit networking opportunities
With its origins in 1853 and located in Gainesville since 1906, the University of Florida (UFL) has a deep history in sports. This online program offers four academic specialties: athlete development, coaching, sports law, and, a unique specialty that makes this program stand out, racquet sports.
Of all the programs we looked at, the online master's in sports management at UFL offers the best mix of asynchronous class learning and practical, project-based, and in-person internship learning, which is why we picked it as the best online master's for this area of study. This is an ideal degree to either further a career and advance in sports or pivot from another field to sports.
The program is designed to be completed full-time in two years, but it can be pursued at a slower pace. With a total cost of $21,087 for in-state or out-of-state students, this program has one of the lowest tuition costs for a master's in sports management.
The online application process is easy and prospective students need to have a 3.0 GPA (after the first 60 hours) from their undergraduate degree, references, transcripts, and a personal statement, and they must take either the GRE or GMAT.
Best for Criminal Justice: Michigan State University
Michigan State University is our top pick for an online master's in criminal justice because it is the oldest and most established criminal justice program in the country. It is also ranked among top master's programs from various graduate rankings, including No. 10 by U.S. News and World Report.
Decades of experience in the field
Synchronous and asynchronous learning
One of the most affordable programs
Great pivot degree for students looking to change careers
Only two degrees and limited electives
Michigan State University was established in 1855 and is world-renowned for its academic programs. Among them is the criminal justice program, the oldest and most well-established in the country, founded in 1940.
This online master's program has found the right balance between coursework that can be completed at designated times as well as at your own pace suited for the individual, creating opportunities for live interaction and networking. Its mix of live and asynchronous lectures, presentations, and assignments offers a great academic education.
The program is designed to be finished in two years and the cost is an affordable $23,200. Plus, there is no requirement for previous degrees or education in criminal justice. This master's is a great way for individuals to pivot their career into this high-profile field.
The two degrees, MS in law enforcement intelligence and analysis and an MS in criminal justice, can be combined with a specialization in security management and certificates in homeland security, anti-counterfeiting, or an international focus.
The online application is easy to complete. Transcripts from the applicant’s undergraduate program are required with a 3.0 GPA. Letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and taking the GRE are also mandatory.
What Is an Online Master's Degree Program?
An online master's degree program, is, as the name suggests, a graduate-level degree that can be completed partially or fully online. Other than where students are located, as online master's programs have matured, there are essentially no differences between classes offered virtually and in-person. Among the programs listed here, the professors, curriculum, assignments, and testing are all the same. Some online master's programs require attending the live lecture virtually, while others allow asynchronous viewing later at your own schedule.
Are Online Master's Programs Accredited?
Most online master's programs are accredited, and certainly, highly ranked programs and all state-run universities are. But students should always confirm the program's accreditation. There are two organizations that sponsor accreditation: the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the federal U.S. Department of Education. These organizations maintain searchable databases that prospective students can use to verify a school’s current accreditation standing.
What Does an Online Master's Program Cost?
Online master's programs can range in cost, depending on the institution and the program. At the low end, a program will cost less than $13,000 (for an MS in Educational Leadership at WGU) and at the high end, about $74,000 (USC's MBA program). Books and student fees are extra and also vary from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Many universities offer various forms of scholarships, grants, paid teaching, paid research, and student loans. One of the main advantages of online study is that it allows students to continue working to pay for their education while studying.
How Long Does an Online Master's Program Take?
Online master's programs are designed as a mirror of the on-campus master's and most programs take one to two years to complete. However, because most online master's are designed for working individuals, they often offer the flexibility for students to take fewer classes and extend the course of study, if needed. Most programs, however, have caps of four to seven years, during which the program must be completed.
How We Chose the Best Online Master's Programs
To arrive at each of these best online master's degree programs, we reviewed about 100 different programs and narrowed down the list to the top seven. We took into consideration the school's and program's online teaching experience, breadth of degrees and courses offered, the time required for completion, cost, curriculum delivery method, class structure, and ratings from top organizations such as U.S. News and World Report. These are all top criteria students evaluating online master's degree programs usually consider.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Should I get a master’s degree?" Accessed on October 18, 2020.
Inside Higher Ed. "Master's Degrees More Popular, Increasingly Online." Accessed on October 18, 2020.