When Did Graduate Degrees Become So Important?

More people are heading back to graduate school than ever before, obtaining master’s degrees in popular fields, such as education, and specialized areas, such as skeletal and dental bioarchaeology. Their decision to return to school is likely due to the stagnant economy and an increasingly competitive job market, in which a master’s degree sometimes becomes a requirement. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of master’s degrees awarded in 2009 was 49% higher than those awarded a decade earlier. In fact, almost two out of every 25 people now hold a master’s degree.

Meanwhile, the number of students who opt to get their degree online is also on the rise. In fact, in 2012, U.S. News & World Report released rankings of the top online education programs for the first time. They included rankings for both online bachelor’s degree and online master’s degree programs.

Online degrees have achieved greater legitimacy as established schools of higher education have created distance learning programs with valid accreditations. Some of these public and private institutions also offer well-ranked online programs. As more brick-and-mortar colleges go online, respect for online degrees is likely to improve. With the proliferation in options, there has also been a move to ensure that master’s degrees actually prepare people for the workplace, arming students with specific training and skills.

Cost of an Online Master’s Degree

Online master’s degrees, particularly those offered by the most reputable institutions, are not necessarily less expensive than those at a traditional college, although students often save on commuting costs, as well as room and board fees. The cost of an online master’s degree depends largely on what specific program students pursue, what school they attend, the availability of financial aid, and how long it takes them to complete the program. The length of a graduate program typically ranges from one to two years, though this can vary depending on your pace, previous credits, and program. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007-2008, the average cost of attending a full-time graduate program for one year was $34,600. This includes not only tuition, but books, materials, and living expenses as well.

Most Popular Master’s Programs

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 50% of the master’s degrees awarded in 2008-2009 were concentrated in the fields of education (27%) and business (26%). Other popular graduate programs include the field of health professions and related clinical sciences, which accounted for an additional 10%.

Many of the newer master’s programs are in STEM areas, which refer to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Job Opportunities

Employers often prefer applicants with master’s degrees, and the U.S. Census Bureau shows that people with master’s degrees earn on average $8,000 more a year than those who have a bachelor’s degree alone. However, when considering whether to pursue a master’s program, students should keep in mind that master’s degrees in fields such as business and engineering often boost graduates’ earning potential after graduation, whereas graduate degrees in the liberal arts or social sciences may not lead to a similar pay off.

Simply stated, some master’s degrees will lead to substantial salary increases, while others may not. For example, an online master’s degree in business often leads to salary increases upon graduation because it equips students with the leadership skills that are vital in the field. Aside from an MBA, online business degrees include master’s programs in accounting, marketing, and entrepreneurship. By earning their business degree online, students can create a schedule that is flexible for them, as they can choose to continue to work while they take classes. Students who complete a master’s degree in business are often elevated to managerial positions at nonprofits or in finance and marketing, among other areas.

Another graduate degree that can reap rewards in the future is a master’s degree in engineering. Graduate students can choose to pursue various tracks, including civil, software, professional, and electrical engineering.

Evaluating Online Colleges

Students who plan on pursuing a master’s degree must ensure that the institutions and programs that they are interested in are accredited by legitimate bodies. Whether a college or university receives accreditation is based on a review of the quality of its educational programs. A private regional or national educational association conducts this review, which helps to ensure that the level of education provided by the school meets an acceptable level of quality. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a list of accrediting agencies that they deem are credible evaluators of high-quality educational programs. As the numbers of online educational enterprises increase, checking with these databases becomes increasingly important. A host of illegitimate institutions, referred to as diploma mills, promise to award so-called “degrees” after little or no academic study, and employers and other educational institutions will not recognize these degrees.

Other important factors to consider are the graduation and acceptance rates of online universities. A lower acceptance rate can indicate that the university upholds a certain standard of academic competitiveness, while a high graduation rate indicates how many students successfully complete their degrees.