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Online Master Degree Programs

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Schooling doesn't have to stop after a bachelor's degree. Many go on to get a master's degree, which is a graduate degree that typically takes a year or two full-time and can consist of around 30 credits (though some are more). There are a lot of good reasons to earn a master's degree, and even more good reasons to get the degree online.

Here are just a few reasons to earn a master's degree, and how to go about it.

Why Get a Master's Degree?

The reasons to get a master's degree are diverse and many, according to David Sylvia, director for all online graduate programs at Penn State World Campus.

"In many senses, a master's degree in many fields is becoming the new bachelor's degree," Sylvia said. "It's kind of the entry point now for a number of professions. More and more professions are requiring a master's degree."

A number of jobs typically require a master's degree, such as marriage and family therapists and post-secondary teachers at community colleges. And a number of employers give employees a pay raise for obtaining a master's degree. Several school districts, for example, pay teachers more for having a master's degree than a bachelor's degree, as the NCTQ Teacher Contract Database shows.

Master's degree graduates also often tend to make more and be unemployed less often. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), median weekly earnings in 2014 for those with a master's degree was $1,326, compared to $1,101 for those with a bachelor's degree. And unemployment in 2014 was 2.8% for those with a master's degree, compared to 3.5% for those with a bachelor's degree.

Master's degrees could also enable career changes (for those who studied something else as an undergraduate) and a wider breadth of knowledge on a specific subject.

How do you Enroll in an Online Master's Degree Program?

The enrollment process for online master's degrees will vary by program.

While after being accepted, students typically indicate they'll attend the school and then register for classes, the application process can differ quite a bit between schools (with prerequisites also differing, though typically including a completed bachelor's degree). Compare the online master's degree in Christian apologetics from Biola University to the online master's degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University. While both require transcripts from past schools and references, Gonzaga also requires a statement of purpose, resume and entrance exams. And Biola's application fee for this program is $65, versus $50 for Gonzaga.

Penn State, and a number of other colleges, don't have any or much enrollment difference between online master's degree programs and on-campus master's degree programs, according to Sylvia. But he pointed out that it all varies by institution.

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What's the Difference Between Online and Campus-based Degrees?

According to an article by Northcentral University, two of the biggest differences between online degrees and campus-based degrees are lifestyle and methods. In online degree programs, students can work from anywhere and anytime, whereas campus-based students have to be in class at a certain time. Also, teaching methods vary in online programs versus campus-based programs, since online programs don't include that in-person element and often feature online discussion forums and video lectures.

"Online master's degrees provide a great opportunity to pursue an advance degree while maintaining your current life," Sylvia said.

As far as the workload difference between online and campus-based degrees, it depends on the school. Whereas some colleges have different instructors teaching online classes than campus-based campuses, not all do. Sylvia said at Penn State, for example, that the curriculum for both formats is approved by the same process and whether it's easier or more difficult will vary by student.

Does Location Matter for an Online Master's Degree?

The Learning House reported that 65 percent of online students live within 100 miles of their institution. And while that could enable students to have the occasional campus visit for meetings, it's not often necessary to live in or near the college as an online student.

Some programs, however, do require some campus visits. These are referred to as "hybrid programs," since they blend online classes with campus-based classes. But even these vary. For example: The Master of Public Administration at Arizona State University requires four weekend intensives during the program, whereas the MFA in Creative Writing program at Seattle Pacific University requires two 10-day on-campus intensives in an academic year.

It all depends on the program if location matters, as well as personal preference.

What Industries Does Online College Best Serve?

While very hands-on professions are unlikely to offer online master's degrees, a number of industries lend themselves well to the online format.

According to Sylvia, industries that are very well served by online colleges are: education, technology, computer science, business, healthcare and engineering. Any industry that requires traveling or unconventional schedules (with sporadic hours) can also be served well by the flexibility of online colleges.

But when colleges like Berklee School of Music are even offering online programs in music, it makes one wonder: What industries can't an online college serve?

Sources:

1. "What is a Master's Degree?", About.com, http://gradschool.about.com/od/admissionsadvice/g/masters.htm
2. Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/mental-health-counselors-and-marriage-and-family-therapists.htm#tab-4
3. Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm
4. Post-secondary Teachers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm#tab-4
5. NCTQ Teacher Contract Database, National Council on Teacher Quality, http://www.nctq.org/districtPolicy/contractDatabaseLanding.do
6. M.A. in Christian Apologetic, Biola University, http://www.biola.edu/academics/sas/apologetics/maca/
7. Masters in Organizational Leadership, Gonzaga University, https://online.gonzaga.edu/masters-in-organizational-leadership/orgl-application-requirements
8. "Online College Students 2015," The Learning House, http://www.learninghouse.com/ocs2015-report/?utm_source=2015_7_Ed_Dive&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=&utm_campaign=OCS_2015
9. Hybrid Online MPA, Arizona State University, https://spa.asu.edu/programs/masters/hybrid-online-mpa-program
10. Creative Writing Residencies, Seattle Pacific University, http://spu.edu/prospects/grad/Academics/MFA/Program/Residencies.asp
11. Berklee Online, http://online.berklee.edu

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