In this ranking, we highlight the colleges with the best affordable online master’s programs in the U.S. In recent years, multiple reports have identified an increase in the number of students attending graduate school. Publications like Inside Higher Ed and Vox point to job (and salary) growth in fields that require advanced degrees as the main reasons for this increase.
Many individuals, however, don’t pursue a master’s degree because these programs can be expensive. In fact, people coming out of graduate school with a master’s degree hold an average of $30,000-$120,000 of debt. However, affordable options do exist. In particular, online graduate programs are becoming more attractive because they grant students the flexibility to continue working while they are in school.
If you’re thinking about going to grad school but want to avoid serious debt, these 20 colleges can help you do just that!
The 20 Top Cheap Online Graduate Degrees Ranking Methodology
For the purposes of this ranking, qualifying schools are defined as public or private non-profit/not-for-profit colleges and universities with well-developed graduate programs that have a significant online presence. This means schools that offer at least 15 master’s degrees (in total), at least 10 of which are available online.
To identify the colleges with the best cheap online master’s degrees, we primarily considered three factors. First, we calculated eligible schools’ average tuition cost per credit using in-state and out-of-state tuition data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). This measure of affordability accounted for 30% of each school’s final score.
We also considered each college’s focus on graduate education, both overall and specifically regarding online learning. To do this, we looked at the number of master’s degrees and the percentage of master’s degrees available online at each school. High scores in both categories indicate a significant dedication of time, attention, and resources to online graduate education. These measures accounted for 60% of each school’s final score (30% x 2).
Lastly, we paid attention to “extra” features that enhance the online learning experience for students. Specifically, we looked at whether or not each school offers course credit for past experience and/or evening and weekend classes. These measures accounted for 10% of each school’s final score (5% x 2).
Note that after we had tallied all the results, we rated the final scores on a curve so that the college with the best cheap online master’s degrees (ranked #1) earned the maximum 100 points.
20. University of Louisiana at Monroe
The University of Louisiana at Monroe offers nearly 20 online master’s degree programs through its eULM distance learning initiative. The programs offered are varied spanning from business and public administration to healthcare, human services, and the humanities. In addition, more than 30% of ULM’s online degree offerings are geared toward teachers and educational administrators. This includes four M.A. in Teaching degrees (which cover all grade levels plus special education) as well as three M.Ed. programs in educational leadership, technology, and curriculum/instruction. But regardless of which degree you choose, you’ll have access to dedicated services for distance learners, such as specialized academic advising, an online orientation, and even an electronic Help Desk.
Average Cost per Credit: $451
19. Prescott College
Prescott is probably not the first college that comes to mind when you think of online graduate degrees. And for a good reason; the school is not known primarily for its adult education programs or flexible learning formats. However, Prescott does have a well-deserved reputation as a defender of “the Liberal Arts, the Environment, and Social Justice.” But if those topics fit your interests, this may be the best online college for you. Prescott’s online master’s degrees include programs you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else, from social ecology and adventure education to social justice and community organizing.
Average Cost per Credit: $796
18. Faulkner University
As a Christian university, Faulkner’s affordable online master’s degrees (many of which take a religious bent) won’t appeal to everyone. But in addition to graduate programs in Christian Ministry, Biblical Studies, and Christian Counseling, the graduate school also provides secular degrees in business, education, and the humanities. In any case, Faulkner’s appeal stems less from its range of programs and more from its depth of commitment to distance learning. In fact, online courses are just the most recent addition to its portfolio – the school also offers evening and weekend classes and maintains three “extended campuses” at sites throughout Alabama.
Average Cost per Credit: $525
17. Mercy College
Interested in a practical education in a high-demand field? If so, Mercy College probably has what you need. Its top online master’s programs cover all the “hot topics” in career-relevant training, from education and nursing to business and leadership. Mercy also offers advanced degrees in burgeoning fields like Cybersecurity and Health Services Management. And working adults will be happy to hear that Mercy offers both weekend and evening classes as well as course credit for prior experience. But the choices don’t end there. When it comes to online learning, you can pick the format that’s best for your schedule: pure (100%) online, blended, or web-enhanced.
Average Cost per Credit: $828
16. University of the Cumberlands
The University of the Cumberland’s list of accredited online master’s degrees reads like a “what’s what” of the most popular programs in America. Business, education, healthcare, information technology – UC has the supply to meet students’ demands. Two particularly noteworthy graduate programs are the Ph.D. and PsyD in Clinical Psychology. Although not APA-accredited, the curricula are nonetheless designed to adhere closely to American Psychological Association standards while maintaining the convenience of a hybrid-online delivery format. With so many great options to choose from, it’s no wonder that this university enrolls more than twice as many graduate students than undergrads.
Average Cost per Credit: $315
15. Wayland Baptist University
If you’ve never taken an online class before, you may be a little worried about what to expect. Fortunately, Wayland Baptist University goes above and beyond to provide the information, resources, and support you’ll need as a distance learner. From frequently asked questions to an “Online Courses Checklist,” WBU’s website offers a treasure trove of useful information. Students can also get tips for how to succeed in an online class, learn how to register, and take tutorials on how to use Blackboard, the school’s digital learning portal. Thanks to this comprehensive support, Wayland Baptist stands out as having one of the best online graduate programs for those who are new to distance education.
Average Cost per Credit: $540
14. University of the Southwest
At the University of the Southwest, you only have two online master’s programs from which to choose: business administration and education. But don’t be fooled into thinking this school lacks variety because these degrees are some of the most comprehensive you’ll find at any online college. The MBA, for example, is really a dozen degrees in one. Students select their area of study from 10 pre-approved areas of specialization – or they can design their own! USW’s Master of Science in Education is similarly versatile. Degree options include Early Childhood Education, Educational Administration or Diagnostics, plus two types of counseling and three different Curriculum and Instruction programs.
Average Cost per Credit: $580
13. Tiffin University
All of Tiffin University’s online programs share three qualities: they are flexible, tailored to specific career goals, and designed “to maximize personal and professional growth.” Indeed, Tiffin advertises many of the very same perks that distance learners put at the top of their wish lists, including no application fees and convenient start dates. And when it comes to the variety of programs, this university easily exceeds expectations. In addition to accredited online graduate degrees in traditional areas – like business and education – Tiffin also provides less common options, including an MS in Criminal Justice and a Master of Humanities (with four and five concentrations, respectively).
Average Cost per Credit: $700
12. Concordia University-Wisconsin
Few colleges have embraced the concept of distance education the way that Concordia has. The Wisconsin branch alone consists of nine satellite centers throughout the state, plus a tenth location in Michigan! By establishing this network of campuses, CUW ensures that even the most commute-restricted residents can access a traditional learning environment, if they desire. But considering the university also offers more than two-dozen programs completely online, students can just as easily earn their degree without traveling at all! Opportunities to take weekend and evening classes and earn credit for life experience only strengthen Concordia’s reputation as a top online graduate program.
Average Cost per Credit: $548
11. Bellevue University
One of the benefits of attending a university like Bellevue is that nearly 100% of its programs are available online. Why does this matter? Well, not only is it indicative of how much time and money the school has invested in distance learning, but it also suggests a certain level of expertise in online instruction. After all, Bellevue didn’t build a digital learning environment, design web-based curricula for all its programs, and create online versions of its student support services overnight! Fortunately, you can get overnight access to all these perks – like Bellevue’s unique “Cyber-Active Online Classroom” and online research library – just by enrolling in one of its top online master’s degree programs.
Average Cost per Credit: $525
10. Saint Leo University
Much like Bellevue, Saint Leo University offers 100% of its graduate degrees online. And SLU’s selection of regionally accredited online master’s programs is quite extensive. Yes, you can earn your MBA or M.Ed. Degree, but you can also study a variety of less conventional subjects – many of which are related to social and helping professions. These include programs in criminal justice (with six optional concentrations), emergency and disaster management, social work, psychology, and theology. But before you commit to attending Saint Leo, you can test the waters by downloading a free “online learning toolkit.” This toolkit includes an online degree e-book and comparison guide that will help match you with the right program for your goals.
Average Cost per Credit: $485
9. University of Maryland-University College
On this top cheap online master’s degrees ranking, the University of Maryland’s University College stands out for its sharp focus on high-tech, 21st-century career training. Even the traditional staples get a contemporary twist at UMUC. Education programs, for example, focus on instructional technology and e-learning. Business programs cover growing fields like cyber security, environmental management, and health informatics administration. The university has even pioneered cutting-edge graduate degrees in biotechnology, digital forensics, and data analytics. In other words, if you want to train for a future-oriented career that practically guarantees job security for decades to come, UMUC is the place to be.
Average Cost per Credit: $559
8. Concordia University-Saint Paul
If you live in the northern Midwest, you’re especially lucky to have access to not one, but two universities in the Concordia system. We’ve already mentioned Concordia University in Wisconsin, but the Saint Paul campus deserves a shout out all its own! In particular, CSP is notable for its Concordia Partnership Advantage program, which helps make its cheap online graduate degrees even more affordable. More specifically, the program grants $2,000 tuition discounts and priority admission to students who are employed with one of the university’s corporate partners. Current participants include several Minnesota-based companies as well as national organizations like AT&T, Lifetime Fitness, and Best Buy.
Average Cost per Credit: $420
7. New England College
Nobody can be all things to all people, and New England College understands this fact of life well. So instead of spreading itself thin to prop up dozens of programs in a variety of subjects, NEC funnels all of its resources into five comprehensive, affordable online master’s degrees. Unsurprisingly, this selection includes programs in business administration and management (each with several concentration options) as well as education (with career-focused tracks like Educational Leadership, Special Education, and Literacy). What’s more, all of the college’s M.Ed. tracks are also available as Certificates of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS), for teachers and school administrators who want to enhance their career development.
Average Cost per Credit: $565
6. Western Governors University
Western Governors University has been a leader in distance education ever since it opened its doors in 1997 – before most people had even heard of online courses! Ever since, the university has been leveraging its experience to craft meaningful, accessible programs for commute-challenged students. One of the features that have arisen from this experience is WGU’s unique competency-based approach to learning. Instead of judging students’ progress in their online master’s programs by credit hours earned, WGU awards “competency units” as degree candidates demonstrate their knowledge. This means that you can take tests and complete assignments on your own time, earning your degree just as fast as you can learn the material.
Average Cost per Credit: $276
5. National University
National University earns the majority of its points for this top online graduate degrees ranking from the sheer volume of programs it offers. In fact, the university is so large that it separates its programs into six individual schools and colleges, covering everything from health and engineering to professional studies and liberal arts to business and education. While 100% of these programs are available online, National also offers traditional classes through a sprawling network of satellite campuses (28 to be exact) across California and Nevada. This network also includes almost a dozen learning centers near military bases, where members of the armed services can take classes for a reduced tuition rate.
Average Cost per Credit: $406
4. Indiana Wesleyan University
It’s hard to find a downside to attending one of Indiana Wesleyan University’s online graduate programs. Between the affordable tuition rates, credit for past experience, and evening and weekend classes, IWU offers all the convenience and flexibility you could need. Plus, all of its online programs have the backing of a traditional, nearly century-old university that takes education very seriously. And there are roughly 30 such programs for graduate students, which range in topic from accounting to social work. In addition, IWU’s Wesley Seminary provides a select number of Christian-oriented online degrees, like the Master of Divinity and the Master of Arts in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry.
Average Cost per Credit: $515
3. Nova Southeastern University
Nova Southeastern University takes the cake when it comes to the sheer size of its graduate school. Not only does it have more than 50 accredited online master’s degrees, but that’s only half the total number of graduate programs (on-campus + online) it offers! Even better, NSU is a participating member in the Southern Regional Education Board’s “Electronic Campus” initiative, which individually approves programs that adhere to a “Principles of Good Practice.” Around 69% of the university’s online graduate degrees already have SREB approval, and that figure will likely continue to grow in the future.
Average Cost per Credit: $931
2. Pennsylvania State University-World Campus
Penn State’s “World Campus” represents an ideal model for online education. Backed by a large public university will well over 100 years of experience in higher education, PSU-World offers credible, respectable degrees for an affordable price. And by leveraging its parent university’s wide range of academic resources, this web-based campus is also able to provide top online master’s programs in unconventional fields like Applied Demography, Enterprise Architecture, Nutritional Sciences, and Renewable Energy/Sustainability Systems. But regardless of which topic you choose, you’ll enjoy the convenience of asynchronous learning in an interactive virtual environment.
Average Cost per Credit: $805
Get More Info
What does it take to build the university with the best affordable online master’s programs? Start by creating 30-40 graduate degrees, then make most of them (more than 80%) available online. Be sure to vary the types of programs you offer, then throw in some atypical options – like Applied Economics and Creative Writing – so you really stand out. It also helps to develop a particularly robust curriculum in the more popular fields; for example, an MBA program with 50 (yes, 50!) specializations. Top it all off with a bunch of digital support services – including a virtual writing center and 24/7 online tutoring. Or, you could get all these features – and more – just by enrolling in SNHU!
Average Cost per Credit: $627
Thanks for reading our ranking of the 20 best cheap online master’s degrees!
IPEDS Data Center