This article describes the in-depth methodology we used to rank the programs featured in our Top 10 Low Cost Online Master’s Degree Programs 2016 ranking.

Popularity Contest

Before we could get to work judging different graduate programs, we had to create a list of subjects that master’s degree students commonly pursue. We searched high and low for evidence of the most popular online graduate programs, as well as those rated “best” for satisfaction, job growth, and job security. This included recent popularity rankings from digital publications like Forbes, CBS News, and the business school website Poets & Quants, as well as from distance learning websites like Guide to Online Schools. We cross-referenced the information on each site to build an initial list of hotly-pursued master’s degrees.

As an added check on our research, we turned to a College Navigator data set from 2013 reporting on the number of master’s degrees conferred in various disciplines. From this, we were able to determine the percentage of people, out of all graduate students, earning their degree in a particular area of study.

Online Accessibility

In order to accurately identify the most desired programs among distance learners, we needed to strengthen our analysis by looking the numbers specifically for online degrees. We also wanted to make sure that the top programs we chose would be accessible to online learners; that is, that there is a sufficient number and variety of distance education programs available in that subject. College Navigator’s searchable database was able to provide lists of schools that matched the criteria in each case.

However this information, while quantified, was still superficial. After all, if 100 universities offer online education in a particular discipline, but there are only a handful of students enrolled in each program, then it would turn out that degree type isn’t that popular (or accessible) after all! Thus we took a deeper look into the numbers, mining the data available on each college to determine the number of students in the 2014-15 school year who actually graduated online with the degree in question.

Next, we combined these results with information available on Guide to Online Schools to calculate the percentage of students in a given degree program who studied online. Taking all this data together, we were able to assess not just the most popular, accessible master’s degrees overall, but specifically the most popular, accessible options in the online community.

Future Prospects

While a great start, this research had yet to pinpoint the top graduate programs that we could also consider to be low cost. As we mentioned in the introduction, our approach to this issue was to pinpoint the majors that offered the best investment in the long run. Data from Forbes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and PayScale.com were most helpful during this process.

First, we looked at employment outlook. How much do economists expect the field to grow in the next five to ten years? Can people earning their master’s degree today expect jobs to be available for them when they graduate? Just as importantly, we looked at salary potential. Based on averages reported on PayScale.com, we calculated the percent growth in income that people with different master’s degrees (and associated occupations) can expect to see from early- to mid-career. For example, if PayScale.com indicated that someone with a particular degree would start out making $50,000 but would average $75,000 by the midpoint, we would say they saw a $25,000 boost in earnings, or 50% growth.

Lastly, we considered the “high meaning” tied to different master’s degrees (courtesy of PayScale.com and Forbes). This metric, as defined by PayScale.com, is the percentage “of alumni who say their work makes the world a better place.” While not strictly related to finances, we believe that purpose and satisfaction are as important a part of your career choice as any other factor. Not only that, but some would say that simply enjoying and feeling content with your job can lead you to be a better worker.

Score Breakdown

This is an itemized list of each of the categories we used to calculate the final ranking of top affordable subjects/degree programs, as well as the weights we applied to each factor:

  • Number of Online Programs (10%)
  • Number of Online Degrees Conferred in 2014-15 (10%)
  • Percentage of Degrees Earned Online (20%)
  • Percentage of All Master’s Degrees (15%)
  • Salary Potential (20%)
  • Job High Meaning (10%)
  • Employment Outlook (15%)

The 10 online master’s degrees with the best overall performance made the cut for our final ranking. And yet, we weren’t done!

Cheapest Options

Remember that list of all the online degrees available in each subject that we obtained from College Navigator? Well, at this point we went back to the mines to find the reported 2014-15 tuition rates for each school. We then identified the cheapest online master’s degrees available in each subject, at least according to the database. To double-check our results, we looked at each of the most affordable schools individually, recording the tuition cost per-credit and the total number of credits (averaged in some cases) required to complete the program.

From this we were able to calculate the approximate total cost of the program (cost-per-credit x number of credits) and thus compare this expenses to others in the same peer group. Now we knew with absolute certainty which master’s degrees were really the most affordable over their entire length of study. To help our readers make the most of their low-cost graduate degree search, we included the five cheapest options for each degree type in the final article, along with a brief summary of each.