Is an online master’s degree worth the money?

Is an online master's degree worth the money?
Is an online master's degree worth the money?

During the 2008 financial crisis, many Americans went back to school to earn master's degrees and ride out the recession. But this path is less clear for prospective students today. 

While the coronavirus pandemic has not dramatically changed what it costs to earn a degree — it has dramatically changed what it means to be a student due to remote learning.

CNBC Make It spoke with master's students (both who have had their classes moved online and who have intentionally chosen an online program), professors, economists and experts about how to answer the question on many people's minds: is an online master's degree worth the cost? 

Here's what to consider:

Opportunity cost

One of the first variables prospective master's students should weigh is the opportunity cost of earning a degree right now. Opportunity cost is what an individual gives up to acquires something. The opportunity cost of earning a degree is the potential earnings a person could make in the job market.

"Historically, we see people go to college in recessions because of the opportunity cost. There are few jobs during a recession, so the opportunity cost of going to school is quite low," says Kevin Strange, associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. "But there are two countervailing forces. One is the economy is bad, and so this is a good time to go back to school. That would generally push more people to go to college. And on the other hand, the pandemic is really disrupting how we provide schooling."

Early data suggests these "countervailing forces" are having an impact on students. 

Undergraduate college enrollment is down 2.5% this semester, in part because in the United States many low-income students, community college students and international students have stopped attending because of the pandemic. 

But graduate school enrollment is up. In September, the National Student Clearing House estimated that enrollment in master's programs has increased by 6% and enrollment in post-baccalaureate certificates has increased 24% since 2019.

Enrollment change by credential type
Courtesy of National Student Clearing House

A potential earnings boost

One benefit of earning a master's degree is that it often leads to increased earnings.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with just a high school degree earn $746 per week on average while college graduates earn closer to 1,248 per week, and workers with master's degrees earn nearly $1,500 per week. 

And workers with advanced degrees have been significantly less impacted by the economic fallout caused by the pandemic. Pew Research Center found that since the pandemic began, highly educated workers are significantly less likely to have lost health insurance or to have struggled to pay bills. And federal reserve data indicates the unemployment rate is two times higher for high school graduates than it is for those with a Master's degree

But still there is a range in how big this benefit is, depending on the type of master's program. 

"Especially for men, graduate degrees bring a huge increase in earnings, that's less true for women," says Anthony Carnevale, economist, professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, explaining that women disproportionately earn master's degree in lower-earning fields such as education and social work. 

Professional aspirations

Many of the students CNBC Make It spoke with indicated that they chose to earn a master's in order to pursue their ultimate professional aspirations.

Liz Saccoccia, 28, is earning a master's in data analytics through Georgia Tech's online program thanks to the financial support of her employer, the nonprofit World Resources Institute

She chose the all-online program (which typically lasts 2-3 years and consists of 36 credit hours costing $275 each) because it was affordable enough to be fully covered by her employer's educational benefit, would allow her to continue working full-time in Washington D.C., and would teach her technical skills she believes will help her in her current and future roles.

"Oftentimes getting a master's is a prerequisite for getting to a higher level," she says. "I wanted something that I could do and also still work and then also something that wouldn't be putting me in debt and I found that Georgia Tech was one of the most reasonably priced master's programs online."

Taurence Chisholm, 22, chose an in-person master's program in conflict resolution at Georgetown University in large part because of the potential networking opportunities. After earning his bachelor's in international relations at the University of Delaware, Chisholm says he felt he needed to earn his master's to get a job he wanted. 

"As I was applying for jobs, I realized, 'Oh, people are not going to know where to put me,'" he recalls. "So I was like, I'm going to do two-fold: I'm going to go somewhere where there are a lot of networking opportunities, and I'm going to earn a degree that could kind of give me some direction"

The three-semester-long program, which Georgetown estimates costs roughly $81,000 per year, was moved online in March of 2019. Now in his final semester, Chisholm estimates that he has over $100,000 in student debt from the program.

To be sure, not all traditional master's students pay such high costs.

Taelor Malcolm, a 23-year-old earning a master's in urban planning at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, says that scholarships have made it possible for her to earn her master's without taking on debt.

"I'm pretty fortunate in that aspect," she says. "But I know there are a lot of other people that have had to still take out debt in order to pay for their education and [because of the pandemic], it's not the education that they were expecting. So they really had to weigh the costs and benefits of taking out that debt."

Taelor Malcolm, a 23-year-old earning a master's in urban planning at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design
Courtesy of Taelor Malcolm

The online experience

Indeed, all of the students CNBC Make It spoke with said that while they agree remote learning is necessary during the pandemic, the online learning experience is not equivalent to the in-person learning experience. 

While Saccoccia says her all-online program fits her personal needs well, she says she does not believe she is getting the same quality of experience that she would at an in-person program.

"I think online programs should be less expensive [than in-person programs], especially in a program like the one that I'm doing where everything's prerecorded," she explains. "I don't think I'm getting as much time or attention from instructors or even TAs because it is online and prerecorded."

"They are not the same value at all," says Chisholm of his in-person experience at Georgetown compared to his remote learning experience. "With Zoom, and just online in general, a lot of it is waiting. You're waiting to be called. You're waiting to submit this paper, this assignment. You're waiting to be told the next thing to do. Whereas in person it feels like you're interacting

He continues, "I think that's a huge part of why people go to school and get degrees is because you're learning how to interact with people… I think that there is a huge difference."

"I don't regret my decision, I'm still enjoying most of my classes and Harvard has a big name, so it carries pretty big weight whether it's an online master's or in person," says Malcolm. "It's just, online is hard in a lot of different ways. In-person was very collaborative, not only with your professors, but with other students. If I had an issue with my Adobe suite, I could just raise my hand and wave somebody over, and the online experience is not like that."

While many students have called for costs to be reduced, universities and experts have emphasized that online education is not necessarily cheaper to provide.

"Students are right to worry about the value of what they're getting," says Strange, adding that he is sympathetic to the notion that costs should be reduced if the experience has changed. "But one thing that's not appreciated is that it turns out that online instruction is not less expensive for the colleges."

Strange and Steven Hemelt, associate professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researched college departments that have chosen to move learning online over the past several years, and found schools were not able to significantly cut costs. 

"It turns out it doesn't really save you much money," he says, adding that building software, developing online curriculum and expanding tech support isn't cheap. Especially on a shortened timeline, like schools have faced during the pandemic. 

"It depends"

Quality, in online classes, in technical support, and in networking opportunities, appears to be key in whether or not experts, and students, believe an online master's degree is worth the price tag.

"If I was giving advice to someone who now wanted to get their master's degree, and it was online. I would tell them if it is what they want, to go for it, but I would say go in with questions," says Chisholm. "On the cost... on the inner workings of the program, on the specifics of where people usually go from there, how the online aspect is going to work. So I would say do it, but have questions"

"I honestly don't think I would suggest people are going to get their master's in a recession just to get their master's," says Malcolm. "It could make them more viable once the recession is over, but I don't know if it's always the best choice."

And when asked if a master's degree is worth it right now, Carnevale responded aptly but unsatisfyingly.

"It depends." 

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