Online Graduate Programs Prospective Student e-Book

Explore this comprehensive guide to find out everything you need to know about earning a graduate degree online. Through various resources like an e-book and articles discussing important topics in online graduate school education, you will be able to determine if pursuing a graduate degree online is the best option for you.

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. This site is designed to help you decide if online graduate school is right for you and explore issues such as accreditation and the impact of online programs on the current workforce. You will also find comprehensive information on the top graduate programs available online today.

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. 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.

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:

  1. Will a graduate degree help me advance in my current profession?
  2. Is a graduate degree required for the career I plan to pursue?
  3. Can I afford to pay for a graduate program, or are there loans, scholarships, or grants available that I would qualify for?
  4. 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?
  5. Are there accredited online graduate degrees in my chosen subject that are more affordable or flexible than a campus-based degree?

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. 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. You should be absolutely sure you want to addend 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 online 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

Online higher education programs have been steadily increasing in popularity, particularly in recent years. In 2011, 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.

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. 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.

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.

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). 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 degree or master’s degree, your education will likely be recognized by other academic institutions should you want to continue your education, 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.

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.

Top Graduate Programs Online

Explore these popular graduate schools programs.

MBA in accounting

An MBA in accounting can prepare you for a career as a public accountant or as a high-level financial manager in a variety of private or public corporations and organizations. Earning an accounting MBA online from an accredited program is a popular option for many students who want to simultaneously advance their careers. When studying online, you have the option of moving quickly through material you are already familiar with thanks to your professional experience. However, a traditional program allows you to use advanced auditing software and see demonstrations of how to use complex features of these systems. In both online and traditional programs you can expect to encounter courses such as:

  • Income Taxation – This course shows students how taxation impacts both business and personal finance planning. You will cover federal and state tax law, income realization and recognition, and tax accounting methods.
  • Managerial and Cost Accounting – This course teaches accounting students how to prepare accounting statements for management. You will learn such concepts as cost accounting principles and procedures, as well as actual, normal, and standard cost systems.
  • Auditing Concepts – This course focuses on the analysis of accounting systems within an organization. You will study evidence gathering, statistical sampling, and creating audit reports.

Master’s in business administration (MBA)

An MBA prepares students for careers in the top levels of management in large and small corporations, as well as nonprofit organizations. You will learn advanced concepts in management, financial accounting, and organizational dynamics. Online MBAs and executive MBAs are a great option for working professionals with several years of experience, as they can be completed much faster than traditional programs. However, while the curriculum is the same for online and on-campus students in most MBA programs, the biggest disadvantage to studying online at this level is the lack of networking opportunities, both with peers from various industries as well as experienced faculty who may be willing to provide references for students who demonstrate leadership ability. Typical courses include:

  • Leadership – This course covers leadership theories and practice. You will learn about the role of management within an organization, as well as leadership styles and interpersonal skills.
  • Statistical Analysis for Managers – This course introduces students to statistical methods of interpreting and analyzing data. You will study probability distributions, descriptive statistics, and sampling distributions.
  • Marketing Strategy – This course focuses on concepts in product and brand marketing for managers. You will learn the importance of market research, segmentation, and target markets.

Criminal justice

Earning a master’s in criminal justice prepares you for advanced career opportunities in the criminal justice field, including careers such as a criminologist, forensic psychologist, criminal profiler, or administrator for a police department or similar organization. Pursuing this degree online can be beneficial for students already working in the field, though online students may miss out on hands-on demonstrations of the information technology used in modern police and federal agencies. Both online and traditional programs cover the following curriculum:

  • Criminology – This course covers the social science of law, criminal behavior, and societal responses to crime. You will examine various motivations behind and responses to criminal behavior, as well as how public policy has affected these factors historically.
  • Terrorism – This course explores current and historical cases of terrorist acts and their motivations. You will study international and domestic terrorism, hate groups, and the impact of politics and the media.
  • Criminal Justice Administration – This course prepares students for management positions in criminal justice organizations such as police departments or in the judicial system. You will learn about organizational effectiveness and integrity through practical examples.

Public administration

A master’s degree in public administration can help you advance in governmental and nonprofit organizations and opens up new career opportunities at the highest levels of government. While it is possible to study public administration online, in many cases students benefit from the school’s reputation and the networking opportunities it affords as much as from the course curriculum itself. In a field like public administration, these face-to-face connections can be crucial when pursuing jobs in the future. However, both online and traditional students can expect to study the following topics:

  • Governance and Policy Processes – This course examines processes of governance in the U.S. You will analyze how the branches of government work together, the interaction of the public and private sectors, and the roles of nongovernmental and international organizations.
  • Organizations and Management – This course allows students to explore the role of management in government and nonprofit institutions. You will study current management theory and practice and learn to critically analyze management styles.
  • Social Policy – This course focuses on how the legislative process can be used to address social problems. You will examine community well-being and how it is influenced by economic, cultural, and social factors.


A master’s degree in education is required for most school administration positions, such as principal and counselor, as well as teaching at the high school level It is even required for a professional teaching license in some states. In addition, teachers with graduate degrees typically have higher salaries and more job opportunities than those with a bachelor’s degree. Although you can complete most of your education coursework online, a hybrid or on-campus program is recommended in order to gain sufficient teaching experience through in-classroom practice. You can expect to take the following courses:

  • Child Development – This course reviews the physical and mental changes that take place during childhood development and how this affects learning. You will learn how particular teaching methods can be applied at different age levels.
  • Diversity and Teaching – This course examines how a child’s culture, background, and home environment affect classroom behavior. You will examine how race or socioeconomic background can give students advantages or disadvantages in the classroom and how to recognize these factors.
  • Classroom Assessment – This essential course allows student teachers to be evaluated on their performance in a classroom. You will apply the educational methods and theories learned in earlier coursework when conducting classes under the supervision of an instructor.

Healthcare administration

A master’s degree in healthcare administration opens up such career options as health services manager, insurance underwriter, or community healthcare organizer, as well as a variety of administrative positions in hospitals and clinics. While some healthcare administration courses can be taken online, a traditional or hybrid program is recommended due to the hands-on nature of the healthcare industry and the computer systems and software often used in healthcare administration. However, online students often have the option of fulfilling these clinical requirements at a local clinic or hospital if they do not have access to a campus laboratory. A master’s in healthcare administration typically includes the following courses:

Managerial Economics – This course teaches students to apply microeconomic and macroeconomic concepts to management decisions in the field of healthcare. You will analyze real situations in which economic principles are applied.

Health Policy Analysis – This course analyzes the design and implications of legislation as it relates to the healthcare industry. You will study historical and current policy decisions that have affected healthcare practices, the insurance industry, and patients.

Clinical Systems Management – This course explores the use of computers, databases, and networks in healthcare. You will learn to view information technology through cost-benefit analyses and effectively utilize clinical software.

With a master’s degree in nursing (MSN), registered nurses (RN) can become nurse practitioners (NP) or advanced practice nurses (APN or APRN) and prepare for careers as nurse anesthetists, mental health nurses, maternity nurses, pediatric nurses, or public health nurses. Most MSN students have a BSN and experience as RNs and pursue a graduate degree to specialize further or become nursing educators or administrators. While MSN programs are available online, all programs require clinical components, as well, and traditional programs give students more opportunities for clinical practice. At the master’s level, you will find the following courses:

  • Leadership in Contemporary Nursing Practice – This course introduces nursing management principles and prepares students to take on leadership roles. You will study which management styles are effective in the healthcare industry.
  • Advanced Health Assessment – This course teaches students how to compile a complete database of an individual’s health, taking into consideration the physiology, psychopathology, and psychosocial needs of the patient. You will learn how to conduct a comprehensive assessment of a patient’s physical and mental health and create individualized nursing care plans.
  • Nursing Capstone – The capstone course allows students to work in the field under the supervision of nursing educators. You will apply the skills and principles learned in earlier coursework while being evaluated by an instructor.


A master’s degree in psychology allows students to advance their careers in the fields of clinical, counseling, and school psychology and to later pursue a doctorate in psychology. While the theories of psychology can be studied online, a crucial element of the MS or MA in psychology is the clinical component, which should be completed on campus or in a private clinic under supervision. This element is often required for licensing and employment upon graduation. Psychology students can expect to take the following courses:

  • Modern Psychological Treatments – This course surveys common physical and chemical treatments in present-day clinical psychology. You will study current research supporting or refuting various methods.
  • Organizational Psychology – This course examines the psychology of groups of people working in industry and other organizations. You will learn various theories in training, motivation, and leadership.
  • Physiological Basis of Abnormal Behavior – The course focuses on behavioral disorders and mental illnesses and their sources. You will study the role of stress, hormones, and other biochemical factors in abnormal behavior.

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Student Guide

Before committing to an online graduate program, take advantage of these resources as part of your due diligence in order to get an impartial perspective informed by research of thousands of graduate schools and the experiences of graduate students.


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