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Should You Get Your Master’s Degree Online?

You’ve decided to further your education by earning your graduate degree. Now you have to determine which universities offer the degree you are pursuing, and whether an online or campus-based program will better fit your schedule. For many working professionals looking to pursue a master’s degree, online programs are very appealing due to the flexibility they offer. But if you have never studied online, or even if you have, how do you know if enrolling in an online master’s degree is right for you? After all, a master’s degree is a serious commitment, and you want to make sure your investment will pay off.

This post will help answer your questions about studying online and may ease some of the concerns you have about not being face-to-face with your professors and fellow students. Attending graduate school online isn’t for everyone — read on to learn what it takes to succeed in an online degree program, and how to determine whether an online or classroom setting is best for you

Common Misconceptions About Online Degree Programs

Online degree programs have gained significant momentum over the past decade. While the concept of online learning isn’t new, many people have never taken a single course online, much less an entire degree. Here are some of the common misapprehensions prospective students have about online learning:

It’s Easier to Earn a Master’s Degree Online Because the Coursework is Less Rigorous

Just like any degree, regardless of whether you attend classes online or in person, the rigor of your graduate program will depend on the university you attend, the quality of the curriculum offered, and the experience and credentials of the faculty.

In recent years, the online learning landscape has evolved as traditional universities have entered the space. While initially only for-profit colleges offered online degrees, today many reputable and accredited not-for-profit colleges and universities offer undergrad and graduate degree programs online. The reality is, online degree programs offered by many traditional universities are just as rigorous, if not more so, than on-campus programs.

As recent University of San Diego graduate Eugene Harris commented, “An online program can be more challenging in some respects because of the demands that are put on you as an individual. The USD master’s program emphasized continual, ongoing interaction with fellow students as well as the instructors in a way that forced us to delve deeper into the issues. This particular program was probably the hardest one I’ve been in.”

The bottom line:

If you enroll in a degree program with a traditional, regionally accredited university, you can expect that their online degree programs to be as rigorous as their campus-based curriculum.

I Did Some Online Training Once and It Was Boring, So I Don’t Think I Would Like to Do an Entire Degree Program Online

There are many online learning platforms available to adult learners today. There are offerings such as Khan Academy, Udemy, Lynda.com and Codecademy that help you learn a specific skill. Or there are sites such as Coursera and edX, which offer college-level courses online for a small fee. The problem is that many people who take these classes equate the formats they have seen in these types of environments with that which is offered through an online degree program. This is a huge misconception, and one that can deter people from pursuing a regionally accredited online graduate degree.

There are three primary ways in which these learning platforms differ from accredited online degree programs:

1. Degree programs focus on learning outcomes, meaning that students must be able to demonstrate certain skills by the end of each course, and the end of the program. Online courses and training platforms like the ones mentioned above are generally not tied to learning outcomes, and studies have shown that they do not produce the same outcomes or completion rates.

2. A degree program is often completed within a cohort, meaning that you will progress through your degree program with a group of peers with whom you can collaborate, question and network. In online learning, you are on your own path, which may affect your level of interest and engagement. You are not involved in a cohort and may not have the same peer and instructor support that you would in a degree program.

3. A degree program offers an active learning environment, whereas the environment with non-degree online learning is passive. In an active learning environment, students engage with the course content through discussion forums and group projects. They also receive feedback and guidance from the instructor leading the course. In a passive environment students take in the information but don’t interact with the content. Examples of passive learning include watching a video, reading an article or listening to a lecture. In most passive online learning environments, there is no instructor actively involved in teaching the course.

The bottom line:

Online learning programs such as Coursera are very different from online degree programs and should not be looked at as beacons to gauge your success or interest in an online master’s degree program.

I Will Be Missing Out on Networking Opportunities If I Enroll in an Online Graduate Program

This is an understandable concern. However, many online degree programs leverage robust tools and technology to make collaboration as easy as possible and encourage — or require — team projects and discussion.

For example, at University of San Diego (USD) all online graduate students are required to actively participate in an online discussion forum every week. Most students report that these discussions provide them a networking experience that is far superior to what they have experienced in traditional collegiate environments because they are able to learn from professionals in their field, from across the country. Additionally, many students who reside in the same geographic area have met up outside of school to study, socialize or utilize campus facilities (when nearby).

“We are encouraged to interact with other students — it’s part of the curriculum each week. And that is one of the best parts of this program — learning from other students across the country and hearing about all their varied and diverse experiences. Even though the program is online I really feel a sense of connection to the university and the faculty and the other students,” remarked Jillian Robards, who earned her master’s degree online from USD.

A quick tip:

When considering online degree programs from local universities, ask if you will have access to the campus facilities. Some universities, like University of San Diego, offer students access to university grounds so they can experience the best of both worlds — an online format, with the amenities of campus.

The bottom line:

Networking opportunities in an online degree program can be just as plentiful as an on-campus program — and in some cases even more so because the students in your cohort come from all over the country and world.

I Couldn’t Do an Online Degree Program After Being Out of School for So Long

This is another common concern for adult learners who have been out of school for a number of years. The important thing here is to choose an online graduate degree program that offers strong student support and a pace that will not overwhelm you. For example, USD’s online master’s degrees all follow a one-class-at-a-time format, which allows students to focus on a single class for seven weeks straight.

Plus, USD has built in multiple points of engagement to all courses, so if you start falling behind, your instructor or program coordinator will be quick to reach out with support.  This high level of personal student support is a critical factor in students’ success and sets USD’s online programs apart. In addition to receiving personal guidance throughout the course, students have a built-in support network with their instructors and cohort peers.

The bottom line:

If you are ready to dive into a master’s degree program, an online format may provide you the extra support you need to succeed. Developed with adult learners in mind, it may be the best option for fitting graduate school into your busy schedule.

I Don’t Have Time to Pursue a Degree Right Now

Work and family life take up a significant amount of time for most adults — and fitting school into the mix might sound impossible.

Fortunately, an online degree program offers flexibility that a traditional on-campus program does not. In an online, asynchronous degree program you can login in and do coursework at any time throughout the week, or even watch a lecture over several days. Plus, you can save significant commuting time by not having to drive to campus, find parking and make your way to the physical classroom. The flexibility offered through online degree programs, paired with a strong student support offering, makes successfully completing a degree possible for busy, working professionals.

The bottom line:

Online degrees offer the flexibility that busy, working adults need.

Potential Employers Will Look Unfavorably Upon an Online Degree

When only for-profit or nationally accredited colleges offered online degrees, this may have been true. But those days are long gone. Today, most employers would agree that how you got your degree, online or in-person, is irrelevant. What employers care about is the academic reputation of the university you attended and how well you did in your program of study.

Another important point to keep in mind is that neither your diploma nor your transcripts will indicate that you earned your degree online. The master’s degree you earn online will be the same as what you would earn in a traditional campus-based setting.

Finally, employers across many industries have emphasized that they want candidates who can write and are lifelong learners. In many online degree programs, students are constantly writing and being challenged to assemble ideas that are compelling and carry logical validity. Many students find that their online master’s degree gave them more opportunities to develop strong writing skills than they would have experienced in a traditional classroom setting.

The bottom line:

Employers aren’t concerned with how you got your degree (online or on-campus). They do care where you got it and how well you did.

How to Know if an Online Master’s Degree Program is Right for You

For most learners, online degree programs work. In fact, some studies have even shown that an online degree format is better at achieving learning outcomes for certain disciplines than traditional degree programs. Of course, the opposite is also true. Certain fields of study such as medicine, for example, would not be appropriate for an online environment because of the amount of lab-based, hands-on learning required.

Similarly, certain people are better suited to an online format or vice versa. For example, online courses don’t provide the same structured schedule as on-campus courses.  If you are the type of person who needs a defined schedule to stay focused and disciplined, then an online degree might not be for you. With an on-campus program, much of your time is managed for you, while in an online program, you are required to self-manage not just your study time but also your course time.

Additionally, there is no hiding in an online program. Every student participates when taking part in an online graduate program — there is no disappearing into the back row and then taking the final exam. That’s because in well-designed online degree programs, discussion and participation is required and tracked to ensure you are engaging with other students and understanding the material. In the classroom, it’s those who raise their hand first who often get credit for participation, but in an online classroom everyone can participate when they’d like — and those discussions happen multiple times per week.

 FAQs About Online Graduate Programs

Investing in a graduate degree is a commitment of both time and money, which is why it’s so important to thoroughly evaluate your options prior to enrolling in a program. Below are the answers to many of the questions that prospective students have about choosing an online master’s degree program:

How much will an online master’s degree cost?

Just like on-campus programs, cost will vary from one university to the next and one program to the next. Some online degree programs are less expensive than their on-campus counterparts because the university does not need to tie up the same physical infrastructure and assets to deliver the curriculum.

Can I use financial aid?

Yes, just like on-campus programs, financial aid is available for most online graduate degrees offered by regionally accredited universities.

Can I use my GI Bill?

Yes, you can use your GI Bill for online degrees as well as on-campus degrees. When you choose a Yellow Ribbon school you may receive additional benefits.

How much time will I have to commit to an online degree program?

This will vary from program to program and student to student, but it will be equitable to the time you would spend on an in-person graduate program. At USD, most online master’s degree students report spending about 15-18 hours per week on their studies.

Who else is in this program?

Again, this will vary. But a reputable, regionally accredited university will likely attract strong candidates who are professionals in their field and seeking flexibility. You should ask the universities you are considering for profiles of past students to help you get a better idea as to the type of people who enroll.

Is my diploma going to say “online” on it?

Most traditional universities that offer online and on-campus degree programs do not distinguish between the two when it comes to graduation time. So, if you complete an online Master of Science degree and your friend completes an in-person Master of Science degree, both from the same institution, your diplomas will look the same. Nobody will know that you completed your degree online and your friend completed hers on campus.

University of San Diego is a traditional, regionally accredited university with a strong academic reputation and a commitment to student success. Learn more about the online master’s degree options available at USD.

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