How to Know You're Choosing a Worthwhile Online Master's Degree (Guest Post)

Note from Katie: This guest post by Mike Cushing is the second in a series of three guest posts on Online Master's Degrees. I have mixed feelings about online education, but have reconsidered somewhat based on the arguments I'm publishing here. As I wrote about in "What is College For?", I believe that the full experience of learning and collaborating in a college environment is just as important as the knowledge gained. But these goals shift somewhat at the graduate level... so I'm growing on this subject. Mike is a writer for the University of Florida’s Web Design and Online Communication online master’s degree program.

Mike Cushing My College Advice

Choosing a master’s degree program can be a difficult proposition. Choosing an online master’s degree can be even more of a challenge, and for good reason. Online degrees earned a bad rap, since many early online degree programs were offered by for-profit universities focused on pumping out graduates as inexpensively as possible. However, that reputation is changing as traditional universities begin to embrace distance learning and online degrees.

Many top universities have avoided offering online degrees, partially to avoid diluting the value of their degrees by expanding their graduate pools. But mostly, large educational institutions are just slow to adopt new strategies and technologies. But when it comes to graduate education, traditional universities are beginning to realize that their reach should not end at the edge of campus.

So, how can you identify a worthwhile online master’s program?

Look for a Professional Focus

There’s one thing that many online degree programs did right from the start: most placed a premium on professional or vocational training. Modern graduates need skills they can connect directly to the workplace, and traditional universities don’t have the best track record in that regard. Only 11% of business leaders strongly agree that college graduates have the skills to succeed in the workplace.

Those are hardly inspiring numbers for people looking to extend their education with a master’s degree in a field outside of business administration. Which is why choosing a professionally focused degree will be increasingly important – not just a degree with professional curriculum, but one that is at least partially taught by instructors who currently work in the field they’re teaching.

Online degrees are ideal for professions in which industry practices and trends change quickly: fields like business, communications, hospitality and even fields like nursing. Traditional programs have been slow to adapt to these changes, but online master’s degree programs often have the flexibility that professionals need.

Online Master's Degree My College Advice

As a public relations graduate from the University of Florida, I’ve seen this firsthand. I may have graduated too early, but my classes largely ignored the rise of digital communications. However, I’ve seen how embracing new technologies has empowered universities to deliver real value to students.

I currently work with three online master’s degree programs offered by the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications: master of arts in mass communication degrees specializing in Web Design and Online Communication, Social Media and Global Strategic Communication. Each of these programs embraces a new model of graduate education: true value comes from blending academic tradition with the expertise of working professionals as instructors.

Digital communication has seen tremendous growth as businesses and organizations have embraced new technologies, but it’s still a field grounded in traditional strategies and tactics. A quality master’s degree in communications should lay a theoretical foundation, and then teach students to connect theory with emerging technologies and ever-changing best practices.

Self Learning vs. Feedback Education

Of course, there’s the Internet-sized elephant in the room: these days, many web design and digital marketing skills can be learned on your own. There are countless YouTube tutorials and discussion forums to learn Photoshop tricks or the latest SEO trends. Since the Internet has leveled the educational playing field, why would anyone bother earning a master’s degree that specializes in digital communication?

First, if you’re someone who can master a new skill by watching YouTube tutorials, I have to tip my cap to you. While it’s possible to absorb the basics of a task from a tutorial, most of us need feedback and interaction to truly perfect a skill, especially one that we’re not familiar with.

For instance, the Web Design master’s program at UF features fully live classes taught by academic and professional faculty. Unlike many online master’s degree programs, which feature self-taught courses, the Web Design course allows students to ask questions in real time and collaborate directly with students.

Rather than working in a bubble to simply learn the skills, earning a master’s degree provides constant feedback to refine your talents and connect the dots between theory and practical application.

Regional vs. National Accreditation

Your final criteria should be a university’s accreditation – a system for certifying educational institutions. While national accreditation sounds better, it is typically limited to for-profit colleges and vocational schools, while regional accreditation is typically the mark of an academic-focused institution. While nationally accredited colleges and universities have a number of benefits, such as less expensive tuition and an easier admission process, there are a handful of drawbacks to choosing a nationally accredited school.

Online Master's Degree

First, regional accreditation is handled by six federally recognized agencies that were all established before the early 1900s. National accreditation is handled by more than 50 independent agencies, which often have very little oversight. As a result, it can be difficult to transfer credits from a nationally accredited school and most employers will not pay for employees to attend.

Given their primarily academic focus, most private and non-profit universities hold regional accreditation in at least one of six regions across the U.S. Regional accreditation isn’t a surefire mark of quality, but your degree will include a number of benefits, including:

  • Regionally accredited programs are eligible for corporate tuition reimbursement.
  • Credits and degrees typically transfer easily to other accredited programs.
  • Courses are almost always led by an instructor or professor, rather than the self-study courses offered by many nationally accredited online colleges.

Historically, nationally accredited programs have focused more on career-oriented degrees, but traditional universities have begun to shift focus to professional degrees. And while nationally accredited programs may focus on career and vocational training, a degree from a regionally accredited university carries significant weight with employers and other higher education institutions.

Accreditation plays a vital role for jobseekers and anyone looking to return to school in the future. Although most nationally accredited schools focus on professional growth, employers are still not always sold on online degrees, especially from unaccredited or nationally accredited schools. Recent lawsuits in Minnesota and from the federal government have put increasing focus on the true value of online degrees.

While national accredited institutions offer value and access, choosing a degree from a regionally accredited school will likely serve you better in the long run.

Changing Education

Distance learning and online degrees used to be fairly taboo on traditional college campuses, but many colleges have recognized the need for degree programs that offer real value to students. That means a degree that can adapt to new trends and data. It means degree programs that students can take without disrupting their families or employment.

As more universities begin to embrace distance learning, choosing a valuable master’s degree program should become much easier.


Mike Cushing is a writer for the University of Florida’s Web Design and Online Communication online master’s degree program. He began his digital marketing career six years ago and loves to discuss the newest trends in the industry.

Please write in and share your online education questions, experiences, feedback, and concerns. Also, check out "The Myths of Online Graduate School." We look forward to hearing your thoughts!