Master's degrees in the US: Increasingly online, more expensive, and more popular
Source: Shutterstock

According to a new analysis by the Urban Institute, master’s degrees have increased in popularity in the US, and have also become more expensive.

From 2015 to 2016, approximately 785,000 master’s degrees were awarded. Putting the rise of popularity for master’s degrees into perspective, two master’s degrees were awarded for every five bachelor’s degrees, according to the analysis.

The report also found that master’s programmes have truly embraced online coursework and schedules, as the share of master’s students who completed their programme via distance education has increased substantially since 2000.

More than 800,000 master’s degrees were awarded in 2017. Over 40 percent were awarded in a master’s programme that was either only available through online education, or was available as either in-person or online education.

In 2016, 31 percent of students enrolled in master’s programmes reported that it was delivered entirely online, while 21 percent of master’s students reported taking some, but not all, of their classes online.

Compared to bachelor’s degrees, online master’s programmes are growing at a faster rate. In 2016, only 12 percent of bachelor’s students reported that their entire programme was online, while 31 percent of bachelor’s students reported taking some, but not all of their classes online.

The number of students taking online master’s programmes are rapidly increasing. Source: Shutterstock

Online courses are becoming increasingly popular among part-time students specifically. In 2004, just nine percent of part-time master’s students reported enrolling in an online programme, compared with five percent of full-time master’s students.

In 2016, 36 percent of part-time students were enrolled in online education versus 27 percent of full-time students.

These are the fields that award the highest share of degrees through programmes available online:

  • Transportation and materials moving (about 800 degrees awarded, 91 percent available as distance education)
  • Library science (4,900 degrees, 82 percent)
  • Military technologies and applied sciences (300 degrees, 78 percent)
  • Homeland security, law enforcement, and firefighting (10,900 degrees, 72 percent)
  • Business, management, and marketing (191,500 degrees, 52 percent)
  • Engineering technology (7,700 degrees, 52 percent)
  • Work and family studies (3,300 degrees, 51 percent)

Rising costs

The analysis also found that the average ‘sticker price’ for tuition and fees for undergraduates in private non-profit schools increased from US$22,550 in 2000 to US$32,450 in 2015, while charges for graduate students increased by about half as much in 2016 dollars, from US$19,300 to US$24,900.

This shows that despite the promose of a higher wage with a graduate degree, it’s getting increasingly expensive to pursue a Master’s degree, especially in private universities.

Much like the average sticker price, the average net price students pay for their master’s degrees has also risen steadily due to inflation.

The study found that the average net price for tuition and fees (the amount students pay to the institution minus all grants) increased 79 percent for full-time master’s students from 1996 to 2016 (compared with a 47 percent increase for full-time bachelor’s students).

Factors influencing these changes

The analysis also provided some reasons as to why the growth of master’s degrees has been so substantial this past decade, in addition to student demand.

Decisions made by institutions and policymakers could likely be a factor. Firstly, graduate students have different enrollment needs than undergraduates and are eligible for larger federal loans.

Universities may also be expanding their master’s programmes over bachelor’s because many first-time, first-year bachelor’s degree seekers reside on-campus, meaning the institution may need to invest in more dormitory and cafeteria facilities to accommodate them.

Also, institutions may be facing other pressures to keep undergraduate enrollment growth lower than graduate enrollment growth. According to the report, some policymakers have pushed for selective public four-year institutions to put a cap on undergraduate students from out of state, which could limit recruitment of undergraduate students.

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