Understanding Online Graduate Education

If you are considering earning a master’s or doctoral degree, you already know that there are a multitude of programs out there in various subjects and concentrations. In addition, the number of online graduate schools and programs is growing every year, and more students are choosing to earn their master’s degree online.


Attending an online or campus-based graduate program makes the most sense if the career you dream about requires it. This is the case for students who know they want to become lawyers, doctors, nurse practitioners, professors, or researchers.

If your career goals do not fall into such a cut and dry category, you should consider alternatives to graduate degrees, such as internships, an entry-level position in your chosen field, attending conferences, and other nondegree continuing education programs.

Do You Really Need Another Degree?

For some professions, such as mid-level or even senior management positions in business, an advanced degree is not required if you can prove that you have the adequate experience and knowledge to perform the job.

Additionally, for some fields, the costs of a graduate degree outweigh the professional or salary benefits.

For example, if you choose to take out $100,000 in debt to earn a master’s degree that is not required for your profession and only provides a minor salary increase over the course of your career, you will have invested time and money that would have been better devoted to less expensive ways to enhance your career.

Other Questions to Ask Yourself

Above all, the decision to enroll in a graduate program is personal, and should be based on your individual career and academic goals. Before enrolling in traditional or online graduate programs, prospective students should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Will a graduate degree help me advance in my current profession?
  • Is a graduate degree required for the career I plan to pursue?
  • Is it hard to get motivated to learn it?
  • Can I afford to pay for a graduate program, or are there loans, scholarships, or grants available that I would qualify for?
  • Can I commit an adequate amount of time to completing my coursework, as well as a dissertation, internship, student teaching requirements, or other requirements for graduation in my chosen degree?
  • Are there accredited online graduate degrees in my chosen subject that are more affordable or flexible than a campus-based degree?
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In addition to the financial and time commitments a grad program demands, the application process itself is time-consuming and complicated. Most graduate programs require you to submit an application that includes essays, recommendations from professors or employers, transcripts, and often an application fee.


In addition, some programs require in-person interviews, particularly at the doctoral level, while others require you to take a standardized test such as the GRE, MCAT, GMAT, or LSAT.

Degree Requirements

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is required by most master’s and doctoral programs in the sciences and humanities, while the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is a requirement for admission to many MBA or business programs. The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is required by law schools, and the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is a prerequisite for attending medical school.

Consider Carefully

You should be absolutely sure you want to attend a graduate program before beginning the long testing and application process, or you will be wasting your time and money.

If you have decided that you do want to pursue graduate education, consider graduate schools in addition to traditional on-campus colleges or universities when selecting the graduate programs you would like to apply to.

Outlook on Higher Education Online

Student Perspective

Online higher education programs have been steadily increasing in popularity, particularly in recent years. In 2014, 6.7 million students were enrolled in at least one online university course, compared to 6.1 million the previous year, and the number is only expected to grow. This number represents nearly one-third of all university and college students.

According to U.S. News and World Report, about 62 percent of colleges and universities offered fully online degree programs in 2012 U.S. News and World Report features rankings of the best online master’s programs for business, education, nursing, engineering, and computer information technology.

While the greatest selection for online programs remains at the undergraduate level, online master’s programs have become increasingly popular with working professionals, while the number of online doctoral programs is also increasing every year.

Employer Perspective

Online programs may be popular with students, but what do employers think of hiring online graduates? According to a 2009 survey on distance learning conducted by Excelsior College and Zogby International of over 1,500 CEOs and business owners, 83 percent said they believe an online degree is as credible as a traditional degree. This is especially the case for online programs offered by accredited institutions that also offer campus-based degree programs, which make the programs more “legitimate” in the eyes of employers.

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In fact, many colleges do not distinguish between their online and campus-based programs that contain the same curriculum, so there is no mention of “online” on a graduate’s diploma. In addition, as employers become more familiar with online education, some may recognize the added self-motivation and discipline required of online students and may even prefer to hire these candidates.

Also, online coursework allows students to continue working while earning their graduate degrees, which is likely to give these students an advantage over those who had to interrupt their professional lives in order to attend a full-time graduate school.

Online vs Traditional Education

When considering an online or traditional graduate school, you should also look into the reputation of the institution in your field.

Some employers may not care whether you earn a degree online or on a campus, but will pay particular attention to the name of the school. This is often the case with Ivy League schools as well as those that offer top-ranked programs in your particular field.

Many of these traditional institutions also offer online coursework or degree programs that are worth considering if they will lead to better employment opportunities upon graduation.

Online University Accreditation

Despite the growing popularity of online education in recent years, many students and employers have a negative view of online study, which can be largely blamed on the spread of “diploma mills” or sub-par academic institutions that offer degrees with little or no work or value to anyone who can pay their price.

Some of these institutions may even appear legitimate, often citing certification from illegitimate agencies, and convince students to spend a lot of money for a degree that turns out to be worthless.

For this reason, choosing an accredited program is especially important for students considering online degrees.

Accredited School

Accreditation is the process through which an academic institution or program is certified to meet minimum standards of quality by an accrediting agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education (USDE).

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For this to happen, an institution must first apply for accreditation from a national or regional accrediting agency, which usually involves conducting a self-study to see if the institution meets the agency’s guidelines, followed by a campus visit or other research conducted by the agency staff, which evaluates the institution’s facilities, faculty-to-student ratio, support resources such as financial aid and career counseling, technical capabilities, staff and faculty credentials, and student outcomes after graduation.

By pursuing an accredited online doctorate or master’s degree, your education will likely be recognized by other academic institutions, or by future employers when you are applying for jobs. In addition, some careers, particularly in the healthcare field, require you to graduate from an accredited program in order to be able to apply for licensure and work as a professional in that field.

Where to Find Them?

The U.S. Department of Education has a database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs that you should check before you apply to an online graduate program.

The online graduate school should have an institutional accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council, which oversees colleges and universities that offer distance learning and online degrees, and ensures they meet minimum technological support and faculty standards.

In addition, the graduate program itself should have programmatic accreditation from a recognized accrediting body in the field, which ensures its faculty and curriculum prepare students for the jobs they can expect to secure upon graduation.

For example, graduate online psychology programs should be accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA), while science and engineering programs are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

Most accrediting agencies have a database of approved programs on their websites, allowing students to search for programs based on location, degree level, and online or traditional formats. All programmatic accreditors need to be recognized by CHEA in order to offer legitimate accreditation.

Therefore, it is important that you check to see that the accreditor of the program you are considering is listed in the directory of programmatic accrediting organizations on the CHEA website.