Everything You Need To Know About Online Graduate Programs

By Danielle Wirsansky on November 16, 2018

You have done it. You have achieved what seemed like the impossible. You have graduated with a bachelor’s degree! Congratulations! It was a lot of work. There were probably moments when you were not sure you could do it or if you would make it to the end and look at you now. You did it!

So now what? Now that you have your undergraduate degree in the bag, is that it? Are you ready to go into the workforce? Or are you considering staying in school and pursuing graduate studies?

If pursuing your graduate studies is the option that has most caught your eyes, this brings a lot more questions to the forefront. What do you want to get your degree in? Where do you want your graduate degree from? And should you do a traditional or online graduate program?

Deciding to get a graduate degree is a big commitment and will definitely affect your career as well as your future, so you want to make the best decision possible. Sometimes online graduate programs seem like they may be a good fit. But online graduate programs seem very mysterious to many. People usually have many questions about them, but do not know where to start. If you do not know enough information about them, how can you truly decide? So, if you are considering it but are not sure that you really understand what an online graduate program really entails, then look no further! Here is a guide to help you learn everything you need to know about online graduate programs.

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How Many Students are Pursuing Online Degrees?

A surprising number of students are pursuing online degrees and it is becoming a more common and accepted practice with each passing year. The 2015 Survey of Online Learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group found the following findings:

  • More than one in four students (28%) now take at least one distance education course
  • The total of 5.8 million Fall 2014 distance education students was composed of 2.85 million taking all of their courses at a distance and 2.97 million taking some, but not all, distance courses.
  • Public institutions command the largest portion of distance education students, with 72.7% of all undergraduate and 38.7% of all graduate-level distance students.
  • Public institutions command the largest portion of distance education students, with 72.7% of all undergraduate and 38.7% of all graduate-level distance students.

“The growth of distance enrollments has been relentless,” said study co-author Julia E. Seaman, research director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “They have gone up when the economy was expanding, when the economy was shrinking, when overall enrollments were growing, and now when overall enrollments are shrinking….  While the rapid pace of online learning growth has moderated, it still accounts for nearly three-quarters of all US higher education’s enrollment increases last year.”

And as for online graduate programs? A 2016 annual survey of online college students conducted by the Learning House and Aslanian Market Research showed that online learning is one of the largest and fastest-growing segments of higher education with 3.5 million students,  of whom 74% are 25 or older.

If you are interested in pursuing online graduate studies, do not be daunted! You are by no means alone. You yourself could be one of the students enrolling in an online graduate program!

Are online master’s degrees credible?

This is a major question that many students interested in potentially enrolling in online graduate programs have. If they take the time, apply, get accepted, enroll, take the courses, and get it all done in order to graduate, will their degree really be worth anything?

The short answer is maybe. That may not be very confidence inspiring, but there are just a few important factors that will influence whether the online master’s degree you are interested in is credible or not. Most human resource professionals, who do the bulk of hiring, are more likely to find an online master’s degree more credible if it is from a college or university with a respected reputation built around the traditional, on-campus model. Another important factor is whether or not the graduate program you are interested in is accredited or not. We will discuss what accreditation is in more detail further down the line as well!

What is most important to take away, however, is that most colleges and universities make little to no distinction between degrees, bachelors or masters, earned through distance learning and those earned on campus.

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Do masters programs need to be accredited?

In order to know if the master’s program you are interested in enrolling in needs to be accredited, you need to understand what being accredited means.

According to US News & World Report, “Accreditation is a process conducted by an outside authority to ensure that a school and degree program meet certain standards of quality and rigor. Online, blended and on-campus degree programs can all be accredited. While it’s voluntary, accreditation has many benefits and, in many ways, validates a program to employers and other colleges or universities… Legitimate online degree programs are accredited by agencies recognized by either the Department of Education or the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation, known as CHEA.”

Being accredited is a very important aspect of choosing what online graduate program to enroll in. You should definitely enroll in an online graduate program that is not accredited with much caution and it is not recommended as the best course of action. Stick to the safe side and enroll in a program that is accredited, which employers will approve of. It will make it much easier for you to get hired if your online master’s degree comes from an accredited program rather than one that is not. Being enrolled in an accredited program will also qualify you for federal financial aid, should that be a consideration for you.

What happens if a school loses accreditation after you graduate?

As discussed, accreditation is incredibly important. And you did you due diligence and made sure the programs you chose were accredited. Then you did the thing—you applied, were accepted, did the work, and graduated—when boom! Your college loses its accreditation. What does this mean for you?

When a collegiate program loses its accreditation, it is not good for the school. It means that the school and program did not meet minimum education standards, meaning that it does not adequately prepare its students. When accreditation is lost, often the school has to shut down. This is because without their accreditation, the federal government will not provide the school with any funding (they usually do not provide any financial aid to post-secondary institutions as a rule). This funding is what keeps most schools afloat, and so without it, they will have to close their doors.

Other schools will be hard pressed to accept credits from a school that became unaccredited should a student need to transfer if their program is shut down as a result of the loss of accreditation because they feel like the students may not have been sufficiently prepared or taught in the classes they took at such a place.

And if a school does not close and a student is able to barrel through and graduate from their program, despite the lack of accreditation, employers will be hesitant to hire them. Often, they will be nervous that this graduate was not sufficiently trained in a program like that and could end up being a potential liability because of it.

HOWEVER. If you already graduated from a program, and you got your degree from the institution while it was still accredited, you should be fine. Just make sure this distinction is made clear to your potential employers when applying, especially if the loss of accreditation happened close to the time that you ended up graduating from the program. It was accredited at the time that you graduated, which is what really matters.

Infographic by Danielle Wirsasnky

How long do online master’s degrees take?

This question can be a little bit harder to answer, but that may actually be one of the benefits of getting your master’s degree online!

Many potential students interested in this kind of program are looking for programs that will offer them flexibility, whether that be from where they can study, the hours they can study, and more. So often a program will cater to you and your needs and you can finish the program at the pace you need to in order to get it all done.

Typically, an on-campus, in-person, and full-time student enrolled in a master’s program can complete their studies within two years. This means that in an online program, you can go at the pace you want, whether than be accelerated or slowed down. Often, you do not have to be a full-time student either when completing online graduate programs as well.

This is a great option for someone who wants or needs to continue working, has health issues that stop them from taking arduous course loads, is raising a family, or has other large and time-consuming responsibilities to uphold while pursuing their graduate degree.

So, if you need more than two years to finish your masters, that can definitely be arranged. And if you are interested in an accelerated program, focusing solely on your school work and getting it done as soon as possible so you can move on in your career or whatever other personal reason you want or need it for, you can arrange that as well. It might be possible to get the coursework done in a year or in eighteen months if you hustle.

However, some programs do have cohorts, where it means that students that come into a program and start it at the same time must stay together as a group and proceed at the same pace. If this is something you are not interested, make sure to find a program without that requirement.

Is there a difference between a non-profit and for-profit school?

This is an important distinction to understand. For-profit schools often have a stigma, which carries over onto students that graduate from their programs. But before you rule out a for-profit school, you should understand what the stigma comes from and how you think it might affect you if a for-profit school’s program interests you.

A for-profit school is basically in the education game for profit, as its name implies. They need to make money off of their students, so often their focus is on recruiting students without offering them the resources they need to navigate their programs adequately.

In recent years, governments have been scrutinizing such organizations because students that graduate from these programs often do so with overwhelming amounts of student debt.

The Institute for College Access & Success reported that eighty-eight percent of for-profit students took out student loans in 2012 versus 66 percent of students at public schools, as well as that students at for-profit schools graduated with higher debt loads.

For-profit schools usually justify their steep tuition prices by claiming that they give students from low-income families or who had poorer grades in school the option to go to a school that is flexible to their needs. But more often, these types of institutions are accused of preying on students that feel that they have no other options to attend school (they might not be accepted at other institutions) and then extort them with crazy expensive tuition and a sub-par education that does not truly prepare them for the real world.

Not for profit schools are either public or private colleges and universities. The tuition that they charge simply covers the cost of learning and is not meant to turn over a profit for the school. They often receive federal funding as well to keep them afloat and so while tuition may be high at these institutions as well, it is seen as more acceptable.

Learning and understanding the travails of your online graduate school options is incredibly important so that you can make an informed decision.

Be sure to scour the web and find programs that not only fit all of your requirements (like being accredited or offering the program you want at the speed you need) but also are interesting to you and will truly help you to accomplish your dreams!

Danielle Wirsansky graduated from FSU with a BA in Theatre, a BA in Creative Writing with a minor in History, and an MA in Modern European History with a minor in Public History. While a graduate student, she served as the Communications Officer for the History Graduate Student Association and President/Artistic Director of White Mouse Theatre Productions. She studied abroad in London, England for the Spring 2015 semester at FSU's study center for the Playwriting Program and interned for the English National Theatre of Israel in Summer of 2015. Her first musical, City of Light, opened as part of FSU's New Horizons Festival in Spring of 2016. She has also won the MRCE and URCAA Research grants from FSU. In the past, she served as the Marketing Director for the FSU Student Theatre Association, the intern for the Holocaust Education Resource Council, and the research assistant of Prof. Nathan Stoltzfus. She has previously written for Context Florida (Contributing Writer), USA Today College (Contributing Writer), Sheroes of History (Contributing Blogger), No(le)Reservations (Contributing Blogger), Female, Reloaded (Arts/Entertainment Editor) , I Want a Buzz Magazine (intern), Mandarin Newsline (youth arts update columnist), Distink Designs (Guest blogger), whatscheaper.com (associate editor), escapewizard.com (associate editor), Spark TLH (Contributor), the Tallahassee Democrat (contributor), Elan Literary Magazine (Head of Marketing), and the Improviser Newspaper (Opinions Editor). Danielle has been lucky to be writing for Uloop since 2015 and to have served as the FSU Campus Editor since 2015.

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