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Most Affordable Online Master's Degree Programs

Affordable Online Master's Article

Master’s degrees can be an eye-catching credential, one that can be leveraged into new positions, new career paths or even, new fields of study. Available through all types of educational institutions, including public, private for-profit and private non-profit, master’s degrees cover a gamut of specializations and topics.

On the one hand, because they are topic-specific and—in many cases—geared towards specialized learning, graduate programs can as and even more expensive than undergraduate education. On the other hand, the long-term return on investment is typically worth it for master’s degree holders as they earn 20% more weekly than bachelor’s degree holders, according to 2013 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Most popular master’s degrees for under $15K

For the budget conscious student, making a decision about attending graduate school is difficult at best, nearly possible at worst. The fears of getting trapped in decades-long student loan payments is at once a reality for millions of students and a real concern for future graduate students. Data from the Federal Education Budget Project of New America estimates $400 million in outstanding student loan debt is for either professional or graduate degrees.

In turn, it makes sense for the prospective student to their due diligence prior to enrolling in a graduate program, and that includes understanding educational options at different tuition levels. Below is a list of the most popular master’s degree programs (by number of degrees conferred in 2013) at universities and colleges with 2013-2014 graduate tuition equal to or under $15,000.

Rank Area of Study
1 Education
2 Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services
3 Health Professions and Related Programs
4 Public Administration and Social Service Professions
5 Psychology
6 Engineering
7 Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services
8 Theology and Religious Vocations
9 Social Sciences
10 Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Service
11 English Language and Literature/Letters
12 Parks, Recreation, Leisure and Fitness Studies
13 Visual and Performing Arts
14 Biological and Biomedical Sciences
15 Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies
16 Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs
17 Library Science
18 History
19 Physical Sciences
20 Mathematics and Statistics

Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education System, IPEDS Data Center

What are the most cost effective master’s degree programs?

Although the list above identifies the most sought-after master’s field of study, the question remains:

“What universities and colleges offer the best tuition rates for master’s students?”

Answering that question provides some good news. Through our research, we identified more than 1,000 universities that offer graduate education for a yearly tuition of $15,000 or less (2013-2014 tuition data from IPEDS). The thinking and methodology behind selecting these colleges was based on the following two criteria:

1. Yearly graduate tuition was equal to our less than $15,000 per year

2. The university must offer master’s degree programs in the top seven most popular fields of study: Business, Computer and Information Sciences, Education, Engineering, Health Professions, Psychology, and Public Administration/Social Services. 

After reviewing the data, the colleges were grouped into three tuition groups:

1. $1,000 - $5,000

2. $5,001 - $10,000

3. $10,001 - $15,000

*Research was limited to 2013-2014 tuition-only. Colleges may also charge a variety of fees (e.g. technology) and other costs such as housing and books are not calculated or included here.*

Top-tier value: $1,000 - $5,000 master’s degrees

Based on the selection criteria, there are 14 colleges with graduate programs costing between $1,000 and $5,000 in graduate tuition. The list includes the following schools:

Institution Graduate Tuition, 2013-2014
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth $2,071
University of Massachusetts-Amherst $2,640
Texas A & M University-Corpus Christi $3,522
University of Wyoming $3,780
University of North Carolina at Charlotte $4,008
The University of Texas-Pan American $4,187
University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus $4,205
East Carolina University $4,223
The University of Texas at El Paso $4,480
Texas Tech University $4,546
University of Nevada-Reno $4,752
Montana State University $4,797
University of Nevada-Las Vegas $4,968
Texas State University $4,997

Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education System, IPEDS Data Center

The $1,000 - $5,000 is a very attractive price point for students and another 112 universities offer tuition in that range across the country. Examples include Utah State University, Alcorn State University, Cox College, Idaho State University, Weber State University and more.

Here is an examination of the top 5 most affordable graduate degree programs (based on selection criteria mentioned above).

1. University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. The University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth tops our list of affordable colleges, with master’s tuition just breaking $2,000. Located in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, the college is one of four campuses of the larger University of Massachusetts.

There are 26 master’s degree concentrations available, including Education, Chemistry, Nursing, Physics and more. For students seeking an online education, the school also offers 33 online master’s degrees as well. Examples include the following:

  • Master of Arts in Criminal Justice
  • M.Ed. Vision Studies
  • Master of Science in Family Therapy
  • MS in Computer Science

 

2. University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The second most affordable master’s degree programs are available at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. A major research university, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the estimated graduate student enrollment topped 6,300 students in 2013.

2013 graduate tuition was $2,640 and students can select from 76 graduate concentrations, including Education, Business Administration, Anthropology, Music and more. Additionally, the school also has several online master’s degree options as well:

  • Master of Business Administration
  • Master of Public Policy (MPP)
  • MS in Computer Science

 

3. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. The third least expensive graduate tuition (just over $3,500) can be found at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Part of the Texas A&M university system, the school is located two hours south east of San Antonio.

An estimated 1,536 students were enrolled in the graduate school at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in 2013. The school provides a range of master’s options across 30 fields of study, such as Marine Biology, English, Business Administration and Counseling.

Online degree programs are varied, covering several topic areas, including the following:

  • MS in Elementary Education
  • MS in Secondary Education
  • MS in Instructional Design and Educational Technology
  • MS in Nursing
  • MS in Geospatial Surveying Engineering

 

4. University of Wyoming. A land-grant university located in Laramie, Wyoming, the University of Wyoming offers a solid graduate education value with tuition below $4,000 ($3,780 in 2013). The graduate school has 80 master’s degree areas of study, ranging from Accounting to Zoology.

Online options are just as varied and students can select from several MS and MA tracks. Examples include the following:

  • Education – Instructional Technology
  • Education – Special Education
  • Executive MBA
  • Public Administration
  • Social Work

 

5. University of North Carolina at Charlotte. With graduate tuition of $4,008 in 2013, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte rounds out the top 5 most affordable graduate colleges. Like the other universities on the list, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte also offers a wide selection of master’s degree program tracks. Students can select from over 100 specializations, which cover everything from Chemistry to Engineering and everything in-between.

Online master’s degree choices are concentrated in three areas: Education; Engineering; Nursing. Specific degree path examples include the following:

  • M.A.T. in Special Education
  • M.A.T. in Elementary Education
  • M.Ed. in Reading Education
  • M.S. in Engineering Management
  • M.S.N in Nursing Administration

Second-tier value: $5,000 - $10,000 master’s degrees

The universities below cover a spectrum of locations, enrollment size and sector (e.g. Private or Public). However, they all share one trait: affordability. With tuition in the $5,000 - $10-000 range, these schools make a graduate education accessible (without breaking the bank) to most prospective students.

Here is the list of the next 10 least expensive universities offering graduate education:

Rank Institution Graduate Tuition, 2013-2014
1 University of South Dakota $5,050
2 The University of Texas at Tyler $5,340
3 New Mexico State University-Main Campus $5,398
4 Texas A & M University-College Station $5,437
5 University of North Texas $5,450
6 Florida Atlantic University $5,467
7 Lamar University $5,544
8 University of New Orleans $5,724
9 Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville $5,772
10 University of Missouri-Kansas City $6,073

Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education System, IPEDS Data Center

This list of colleges and universities was the largest (40 universities) and another 394 universities offering master’s degrees with tuition in the $5,000 to $10,000 range. The sheer number of colleges providing tuition in that range indicates there is inherent value within that pricing—it is an attractive number for students and affords economic flexibility for universities to develop targeted graduate instruction.

Below is a description of the top five schools that charge less than $10,000 in graduate tuition.

1. University of South Dakota. Located in Vermillion, South Dakota, the University of South Dakota is a research-focused university with a 2013 graduate enrollment of more than 2,600 students. Graduate scholars can choose from 66 study tracks, including Biology, Accounting, Art, Physics, Speech, Theatre Arts and more.

For students desiring more flexibility, the University of South Dakota also provides a handful of online master’s programs, including the following:

  • Master of Business Administration
  • Master of Public Health
  • MA in Educational Administration
  • MA in Addiction Studies

2. The University of Texas at Tyler. The second school in the $5,000 to $10,000 list, the University of Texas at Tyler had 2013 graduate tuition rates slightly above $5,300. A part of the University of Texas system, the university had a 2013 graduate enrollment of 1,735.

Graduate students can select from 36 majors in areas such as Public Administration, History, Computer Science, Criminal Justice, Biology and more. Several online programs are available as well, including the following:

  • M.Ed. in Reading
  • M.A. in School Counseling
  • M.A. in English
  • M.S. in Civil Engineering

 

3. New Mexico State University-Main Campus. At number three of cost effective schools in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, New Mexico State University’s graduate tuition in 2013 was just below $5,400 ($5,398). Located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the university had more than 3,100 graduate students enrolled in 2013.

Areas of study span 56 concentrations, including Aerospace Engineering, Biology, Geology, Public Health, Spanish and more. Through the school’s distance education department, students may complete a number of different online degrees, such as the following:

  • MA in Sociology
  • MA in Education
  • MA in Criminal Justice
  • MA in Public Health

4. Texas A&M University-College Station. The flagship University of the Texas A&M University system, Texas A&M University-College Station is one of the largest universities in the country. More than 11,600 students were enrolled in the graduate school in 2013, making Texas A&M University-College Station one of the biggest providers of graduate education in the U.S.

Combining a 2013 graduate tuition of $5,437 and over 100 master’s programs, Texas A&M University-College Station is, indeed, a good value for prospective students. In addition to the selection of on-campus graduate programs, students may also select from a wide variety of online-focused master’s degrees, including the following examples:

  • MA in Agricultural Development
  • MEd in Educational Technology
  • MS in Statistics
  • MS in Safety Engineering

5. University of North Texas. A public institution located in Denton, Texas, the University of North Texas had nearly 7,000 graduate students enrolled in 2013. Graduate tuition of $5,450 and 82 master’s programs make the university stand out as an accessible, affordable option for graduate students. Master’s degree majors are available in nearly every subject area, from education to engineering, visual arts and design to business.

Distance learning, particularly online learning, is well-supported by the college. Students may select from a variety of courses and master’s degree concentrations, including the following:

  • MBA in Marketing
  • MA in Applied Anthropology
  • MS in Hospitality Management
  • MS in Library Science

Third-tier value: $10,000 - $15,000 master’s degrees

Six universities met the criteria stated above in our $10,000 to $15,000 range, making it the smallest tier of affordable graduate colleges. Yet, even within that price range, students should find value—depending on their personal educational needs and future career goals.

Rank Institution Graduate Tuition, 2013-2014
1 University of Michigan-Dearborn $10,200
2 National University $10,368
3 Walden University $11,814
4 Portland State University $12,276
5 Temple University $13,410
6 St Mary's University $14,490

Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education System, IPEDS Data Center

1. University of Michigan-Dearborn. A satellite campus of the University of Michigan, the University of Michigan-Dearborn offers more than 40 graduate degrees in four colleges: College of Arts, Sciences and Letters; College of Business; College of Education, Health and Human Services; and the College of Engineering and Computer Science. Students can choose from a range of master’s degree concentrations, from accounting to teaching.

The university also provides twelve online master’s programs, including the following:

  • MS in Software Engineering
  • MS in Computer and Information Science
  • MSE in Mechanical Engineering
  • MSE in Energy Systems Engineering

2. National University. Located in San Diego, California, National University is home to an additional 45 campuses throughout the United States, including Virginia, Texas and Nevada. The university is known for its selection of online programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. According to the university’s websites, most of its online graduate programs can typically be completed in as little as two years.

Students may select from any number of master’s degree programs, including the following:

  • Master of Business Administration
  • Master of Science in Sustainability Administration
  • Master of Science in Higher Education Administration
  • Master of Science in Engineering Management

3. Walden University. A private, for-profit institution located in Minneapolis, Minnesota offers both campus- and online-based master’s degree programs. With graduate tuition less than $12,000 in 2013-2014, a graduate education could be affordable for numerous students.

The university has a selection of approximately 40 master’s degree majors. Students could select from programs such as the following:

  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • M.S. in Adult Learning
  • M.S. in Emergency Management
  • M.S. in Leadership

4. Portland State University. Portland State University boasts a diverse graduate school that offers students more than 70 master’s degree programs across eight schools and colleges. More than 5,200 students were enrolled in graduate programs in 2013-2014 at Portland State. Students may choose from a variety of academic concentrations at the university, including the following areas:

  • Biology
  • Creative Writing
  • Geology
  • Financial Analysis

5. Temple University. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Temple University is a public institution that was founded 130 years ago. Its rich academic history continues to today, offering students graduate education opportunities through 15 colleges and departments, such as the College of Liberal Arts and the Kornberg School of Dentistry.

In addition to its on-campus master’s degree options, Temple University also provide students the choice to enroll in online master’s degree tracks, including:

  • Ed.M. in Educational Psychology
  • Master of Business Administration
  • Master of Science in Quality Assurance/Regulatory Affairs

Outside this list of six schools, another 304 universities have graduate tuition between $10,000 and $15,000. Because they did not meet our criteria of selected program offerings, they were omitted from the list.

Here is an example list of universities that did not meet the criteria, but have graduate tuition below $15,000.

Institution Graduate Tuition, 2013-2014
Heritage University $10,440
Valparaiso University $10,350
Bradley University $14,040
Mercer University $13,474
Westminster College $13,062
Northwest University $12,300
Drake University $10,800
St Bonaventure University $12,420

Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education System, IPEDS Data Center

How institutional type affects the cost of a master’s degree

All-told, 1,024 universities and colleges made the list and the split across institutional control lines was revealing as well. Private universities are often associated with expensive tuition rates, but—perhaps surprisingly—led the list of programs costing under $15,000 in graduate tuition.

Private universities were followed by Public and then Private for-profit, which—like Private institutions—are sometimes associated with costly per credit hours and fees. However, over 100 Private for-profit universities made the list of affordable schools.

Institution Control Number of <$15,000 Programs
Private for-profit

114

Private not-for-profit

562

Public

348

Grand Total

1024

Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education System, IPEDS Data Center

Economical or expensive master’s tuition?

In the end, earning a master’s degree doesn’t always promise an uptick in career earnings. With that said, individuals considering applying to a graduate program should consider four items before making a decision:

  • Location. Is the location right? Would it be a better investment to move to another state or consider an online program?
  • Academics. Is it the right program academically? Not every master’s in accounting program is the same or created equal.
  • Faculty. Is the faculty regionally, nationally or internationally recognized? Are there opportunities to study with industry leaders? How will the choice of faculty impact future studies or career goals?
  • Cost. Finally, cost. Is the program both affordable and academically strong?

Cost is not the most important factor when it comes to making a decision about graduate school. Besides the items above, other components may weigh heavily, including school brand and name recognition, alumni, job placement rates, internships, technology and more.

Taking a balanced approach, making a list of target schools and investigating the pros and cons of each should make a difference when it comes to selecting a graduate institution to attend.

Sources:                                                                                                                                                                          

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

Integrated Postsecondary Education System, IPEDS Data Center, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/

National University, http://www.nu.edu

New Mexico State University, http://www.nmsu.edu/

Portland State University, http://www.pdx.edu

Temple University, http://www.temple.edu

Texas A&M University-College Station, https://www.tamu.edu/

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, http://gradschool.tamucc.edu/

University of Massachusetts-Amherst, http://www.umass.edu/

University of Massachusetts-Amherst, http://www.umassulearn.net/programs/graduate

University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, http://www.umassd.edu/

University of Michigan-Dearborn, http://www.umdearborn.edu

University of North Carolina at Charlotte, http://www.uncc.edu/

University of North Texas, http://www.unt.edu/

University of South Dakota, http://www.usd.edu/

University of South Dakota, http://www.usd.edu/continuing-and-distance-education/off-campus-and-distance-programs.cfm

University of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, http://www.tamucc.edu/

University of Texas at Tyler, http://www.uttyler.edu/

University of Wyoming, http://www.uwyo.edu/

US News & World Report, How Much Loan Debt is from Grad Students? More than You Think, March 2014, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/03/25/how-much-outstanding-loan-debt-is-from-grad-students-more-than-you-think

Walden University, http://info.waldenu.edu

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