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Earning a master’s degree is an excellent idea in theory, often resulting in great returns like specialized industry knowledge, improved job security and higher income. However, like most undertakings in life, you cannot begin or complete a master’s program until you can pay for it.
The average cost of a master’s degree is nearly $40,000, posing a significant barrier to many learners. College students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to leave school before finishing their degree, and those who do graduate often take longer than usual to do so. So if you’re hesitant about applying to a master’s program because you’re not sure how to pay for it, you’re not alone—but you have options to make graduate education more affordable.
This article explores the cost of master’s degrees at both public and private colleges. We also touch on the cost of an online master’s and provide tips on reducing the cost of your graduate education.
How Much Is a Master’s Degree?
Earning a master’s degree involves a significant financial investment involving tuition, fees and other expenses. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the average graduate degree cost $19,749 per year in tuition and fees as of the 2020-21 academic year.
However, determining the true cost of a master’s degree can be confusing since this figure accounts for several factors aside from tuition, such as:
- Whether your college is public or private
- The specific graduate program you choose
- Your school’s location
- The length of your degree program
- Whether you’re an in-state or out-of-state student
- Whether you attend in person or online
Private College Tuition vs. Public College Tuition
According to NCES, the average annual graduate tuition at public colleges is $12,394. Meanwhile, graduate students at private schools pay an average of $26,621 per year.
However, there’s some tuition disparity even among private universities. For-profit colleges, which are generally run as businesses, charge an average annual tuition of $14,301. But master’s students at private, nonprofit universities pay $28,445 per year in tuition and fees on average.
Overall, graduate students at private colleges and universities pay 101% more than their public-school counterparts on average.
As of 2020, 73% of postsecondary students were enrolled in public institutions. Private, nonprofit institutions enrolled 22% of college students, and private, for-profit institutions held only 5% of the postsecondary population.
Depending on which type of college you choose, the total cost of a two-year master’s degree could range from around $25,000 to $57,000.
In-State vs. Out-of-State College Tuition
If you choose to earn your master’s degree at a public university, note that public colleges usually charge different tuition rates to in-state and out-of-state learners. In-state students are those who attend a college within their primary state of residence. Out-of-state students pursue their degrees in states where they are not permanent residents.
In-state students typically pay less in tuition because they and their families pay state taxes, which help fund public colleges. As such, the state subsidizes tuition rates for learners attending in-state, public schools.
NCES does not distinguish between in-state tuition and out-of-state tuition at the graduate level, so we’ll explore these variations by institution. For example, most in-state graduate students at the University of California, Los Angeles pay around $18,140 in annual tuition. Non-California residents, however, pay about $33,240 per year.
Similarly, out-of-state students attending colleges like Georgia State University and Montana State University pay around 200% more than the states’ residents.
How Much Does an Online Master’s Degree Cost?
The Covid-19 pandemic caused a surge in online learning since physical contact and commuting were highly restricted. Educators and learners alike had to seek alternative platforms for school, and by the fall of 2021, 59% of students in postsecondary institutions were enrolled in online programs.
Online master’s degrees often cost less than traditional ones for several reasons. First, remote learners pay for just the cost of attendance—plus technology or distance learning fees, if applicable. Student fees for on-campus facilities and activities don’t generally apply to distant learners. Moreover, online learning eliminates transportation expenses as students don’t need to commute.
Also, it’s common for public online universities to extend in-state rates to all distance learners, regardless of where they live.
Tuition for online master’s degrees vary based on the institution and program of study. NCES does not distinguish between online and on-campus master’s programs in its tuition data, so we’ll again look at specific institutions for examples. The annual tuition for Southern New Hampshire University graduate students is $12,000. And at Eastern Washington University, master’s tuition ranges from $13,200 to $18,000 per year.
How To Pay for a Master’s Degree
Scholarships award financial support based on academic or professional achievements. Schools like the University of North Texas and the University of Oregon often award university-wide and department-specific graduate scholarships. You can also find master’s scholarship opportunities through independent organizations like Scholly, GoGrad and FastWeb.
An assistantship is an exchange between you—the graduate student—and your higher education institution. As an assistant, you offer your time and labor in exchange for a monthly stipend and tuition waiver.
Securing a graduate assistantship position is quite competitive, but demonstrating academic excellence and team spirit can get you a long way. Depending on which roles are open in your department, you could work as a teaching, research or administrative support assistant.
Many learners turn to student loans to help fund their graduate education. There are two types of student loans to explore: public and private.
The government offers various tiers of federal student loans, with different interest rates and eligibility criteria. Direct PLUS loans, for example, are available only to graduate and professional students. With these loans, enrolled graduate students with an acceptable credit history or qualified endorsers can borrow money for tuition.
On the other hand, private student loans are provided by banks, credit unions and other private lenders. Graduate students need good credit scores to qualify for private loans. And although eligible borrowers can get better terms from private lenders, the repayment process is typically less flexible than federal loan repayment systems.
Employer Tuition Reimbursement Programs
Through tuition reimbursement programs, employers cover part or all of employees’ education costs as long as their study program falls within company guidelines. Many employers embrace such programs because they believe their companies will benefit from more highly educated employees.
Some employers require tuition reimbursement recipients to remain at the company for a specific duration after completing their education. And if they decide to leave before the term ends, they must repay a percentage of the education cost.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About the Cost of a Master’s Degree
How do people afford a master's degree?
Graduate students can help pay for their degrees by working part time during their studies. Plus, several other options exist to reduce the cost of a master’s degree, such as scholarships, assistantships, grants, student loans and tuition reimbursement programs.
Is a master's more expensive than a bachelor's?
The annual tuition for a master’s program at a public college is much higher than a bachelor’s tuition. Graduate students pay roughly $12,390 per year on average, according to NCES data, while undergraduates pay about $9,380. That said, earning a bachelor’s degree overall may cost more since bachelor’s programs typically last four years, while master’s programs last two.
How many years does it take to get a master's degree?
A master’s degree typically takes two years to earn. However, studying part time can extend your degree timeline, and an accelerated program may shorten it.