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An online or campus-based master's degree program may provide you with expert-level training for a new career or advancement in your current field. Many employers, especially business and technology companies, may not hire you without one. Make no mistake about it; an online graduate degree program offers flexible scheduling and convenience, but your commitment to scholarship determines whether your investment pays off.

With rapid advancements in technology and international outsourcing, the world is smaller, and competition for mid-range or management jobs is more competitive on a global scale. Earning a master's degree now may prepare you to move up the ladder. Three of the 10 fastest-growing careers are in health care and require applicants to hold master's degrees.

But is the investment in graduate school worth it? You can use several evaluating factors to find out.

Determining the Value of Graduate School

U.S. Census Bureau statistics reported in 2011 that people who held master's degrees had median weekly earnings of $234 more than workers with only a bachelor's degree. Over the course of a working lifetime, the Census Bureau reports that completing a master's degree can add up to more than a half million dollars more in earnings over a bachelor's degree. The projected lifetime earnings for people completing a master's degree show net earnings (after subtracting graduate school costs) of more than a million dollars.

But there's more to the equation. Not all master's degrees translate to high earnings. For example, if you intend to do post-graduate work in the liberal arts, it should be because those fields of study are your passion or you plan to go into education, where post-secondary teachers earn much more than secondary educators. And not all master's degree programs launch you into your profession until you complete licensing, internships, or other career requirements.

Online MBA degree programs are well-suited for career professionals or students moving directly from undergraduate to graduate work who intend to work in health care, technology, or business. You might say that MBA degrees in technology, health care, or business management may have become the currency for advancement. You can choose whether an online or a campus-based program may be best for you in terms of your learning style and your schedule, but both are viable options when pursuing a master's degree.

Where Do You Want to Go with Your Master's Degree?

It should be no surprise that while no two master's degree programs are identical, neither are two graduates from those programs. Ultimately, it comes down to personal initiative, dedication, intelligence, creativity, and willingness to go where the jobs are.

Some 20 percent of all people in graduate school pursue their MBA. Another 28 percent enroll in programs offering advanced educational degrees. The balance of today's graduate students seek degrees in health care, library science, or social work fields where a master's degree can provide an entry into or advancement in the profession.

Saying Yes to Graduate School

If you've decided that graduate school is a good choice for you, you still have some work to do to find the right college, the right program, and financing. Let's start with the scariest part first--how are you going to pay for your graduate degree?

Your first step should be to complete the U.S. Department of Education's Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA and its Economic Calculator will determine how much money in loans, grants, or scholarships are available, and how much you're expected to pay. As the saying goes, you should have completed this yesterday. The good news is that financial aid is available.

The next consideration is narrowing down your programs. Accreditation may be a make-or-break proposition for your graduate school. Accreditation confirms the academic quality of your online graduate education according to benchmarks established by independent evaluators. Your employers may insist that your degree come from an accredited institution, and your financial aid package and credit transfer options may depend on it as well.

Evaluating Graduate Schools

Narrow your short list of accredited programs further by determining:

  • Length of the graduate program
  • Degree requirements (testing, thesis requirements, internships)
  • Cost
  • Entry requirements, including tests
  • Whether you can receive credit for job experience or previous degree work
  • Credentials of faculty and staff
  • The college's track record in preparing graduates for jobs
  • Whether the online college offers career planning or search preparation assistance

If you're enrolling in an online master's degree program, drop any ideas that distance graduate education programs are slam dunks. You can set your own schedule, but you'll need to set regular hours to log in to the classes, do required research, and keep pace. In the end, you'll find the experience rewarding. How much you learn--and earn--is up to you.

Pursue your Major today…