Online learning has become a normal part of many people’s lives, particularly since the COVID pandemic forced educational institutions to become creative and switch all their teaching online. There were already many organisations and institutions offering degrees based solely online before the pandemic began and the good news is that there are now even more! Online learning is flexible, fitting alongside an existing job or allowing you to spend time on your family or hobbies whilst studying. It can also end up being much cheaper – you don’t have to think about accommodation costs, or travel to and from a campus.
A big consideration when beginning a master’s degree is the cost – millions of students wind up with a daunting debt hanging over their heads once they graduate. Shockingly, the average debt US students face after graduation is $57,000 USD, with over a quarter of people owing up to $100,000! This has forced many people to look for more affordable alternatives.
Free master’s degrees taught online can be very hard to come by, but there are some options to consider, and some useful tips when it comes to making your study more affordable. Here, we will discuss some of the best free online master’s programs on offer, take a closer look at the institutions offering them, and provide a checklist to help you choose the right online program for you.
Free Online Education
First, we have to define what is meant by free. While it is hard to find completely free programs where you don’t have to pay any kind of fees, it is possible to find programs with free tuition. You may have to pay for the extras that come with studying a program such as learning materials, examinations, applications, and some courses.
On the other hand, there are some tuition-free programs available – those where you are provided with the course materials and you “teach yourself”. There are a wider range of free or low cost tuition-free programs online compared to totally free tutor-led programs.
There are several factors that will affect the cost of an online master’s program and are often the reason it is hard to find free programs. These factors include:
- School rankings
- Student support services
- Availability of financial aid
- Type of accreditation
- The quality and experience of faculty members
- Student to faculty ratio
- Size and influence of the student body
- Instruction format for online programs
While you are unlikely to find a totally free master’s program being run by the most reputable colleges with the highest school rankings, the search is not impossible. Next, we’ll discuss the ways in which you can obtain an online master’s qualification for free (or almost free!)…
Free Online Master’s Degrees: 5 Different Options
Depending on what you want to achieve with your degree, there are a few ways you can approach a free online master’s degree.
1. Financial Aid
The most viable option in terms of getting a good quality, accredited master’s degree without paying is to seek financial aid. Scholarships are a well-known method of getting funding to do a master’s degree when you can’t afford to pay for it yourself. Applying for multiple scholarships with a strong, in-depth application can be time-consuming, but well worth it if just one application gets accepted. It may be tempting to only go for the larger scholarships offering higher funding, but several smaller scholarships combined can go a long way. Try searching these scholarship databases:
Grants can be given in full or part to ‘deserving’ students – they can be aimed at specific students, for example, Scholarships For Women, or the Davis Putter Scholarship Fund for students pursuing programs in social and economic justice. Grants can be awarded to students with a low combined family income too. Make sure you are eligible for the requirements of the grant before applying – this can save you and the grant provider a lot of time.
2. Military Or Naval Academy Degree
Joining the US military or naval academy may offer you the opportunity to get a master’s degree for free. This is a major benefit, but not a decision to be taken lightly. It is not a good idea to join the military for the sole purpose of getting a free education – this is good for neither you nor the military. Consult your friends, family, or anyone close to you that you trust before making this decision.
If you decide the military is for you, you can receive funding for tuition and maintenance (living costs) when studying under the G.I. bill. Make sure the bill is offered in your state, as it is only offered to residents of certain states. Otherwise there are other tuition funding programs for military personnel.
3. Degrees Funded By Employers
Certain types of job, and certain companies may offer their employees the opportunity to study a master’s degree while working for them. This is advantageous for both you and the company – you receive further, specialised skills and knowledge that benefit your career and make you more valuable to the company you work for.
Companies may already offer relevant programs, especially large companies like Intel, P&G, Bank of America, or BP. Often there are stipulations such as having worked for the company for more than 6 months or 1 year. Searching for jobs that offer tuition-assistance programs further down the line can be a great way to go.
Alternatively, if you have been working for your employer for a long time, and if the company is large enough, you may be able to ask your employer whether funding for a master’s degree is an option for you. Making a case for an online degree may help your position, as you are more likely to be able to continue working alongside while you study – a big bonus for employers.
4. Work For A College or University
Often, working for a college or university has the perk of taking courses or whole programs for free. Options can include Work Study programs, Residence Director programs, or even Research Apprenticeships. While online options may be more limited in this case (and if you work at the college already perhaps it’s not too problematic to study on-campus), they are not impossible to find.
If you find a job at a college or university, or if you already work for one, have a conversation with your employer to ensure this is possible for you. A big perk of this option is that you are already at the university – you have all the connections and potential networks to help you get the job you want after finishing the master’s degree.
5. Tuition-Free Master’s Degrees
There are some top universities out there, offering great opportunities for a fully funded, tuition-free master’s program with full accreditation. Some of these include:
- University of the People – a fully accredited university offering free, online degree courses. It was established in 2009 and was the first ever non-profit, American accredited online university. Their MBA is very flexible, suited to graduates from a range of study areas as long as they have at least 2 years of work experience under their belts.
- MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) – a well-known, private research university which was established way back in 1861. They offer free online course through MIT Open learning, and fully funded programs such as the MIT Media Lab’s Program in Media Arts & Sciences.
- Georgia Institute of Tech (Georgia Tech) – a specialist technical college which offers a range of online programs. It was ranked among the top 10 public universities (US News & World Report).
- Columbia College – a non-profit provider of higher education, established back in 1851. Online programs are advertised as being of the same standard as campus programs, and have been consistently highly ranked.
Free Online Master’s Degree Checklist
So, you’ve decided a free online master’s degree is definitely for you? Make sure you check through the program details carefully before signing up! Here’s a quick checklist to help you on your way:
- Although some online programs can be studied from your phone, it is advisable to have a laptop and a high-speed internet connection.
- If you are going for financial aid, double check the program qualifies for funding (including grants and work-study courses).
- Check the content and quality of the program – read through the course information carefully. Has it been written well? Does the content look like it will give you what you want? Is there sufficient student support offered?
- Check the academic excellence and school rankings – it is advisable to choose a reputable and accredited college or program, this will mean you are more likely to find a better job and receive a higher pay grade once you have graduated.
- If you go for a scholarship or grant, try to find a school where scholarships get auto-renewed so you don’t have to reapply every year (although, if you do, it’s not the end of the world!).
- Bear in mind the type of job you want to get after you finish the master’s – while many employers are not worried about where you got your master’s degree from, it will matter more to other employers. You may need to consider the reputation of the degree provider before committing yourself to studying. For example, ivy-league college degrees will stand out when compared with degrees obtained from tuition-free colleges.
- Warning: advertising-supported sites offering free online degrees will probably not give you a recognized qualification. They are more likely to be offering free individual courses rather than whole programs, and the qualifications may not be accredited. Make sure you critically evaluate a site before signing up for studies – you don’t want to waste your time!