Time is precious, especially to teachers: with essays to grade, parents to calm, and lessons to plan, it can seem ludicrous to think you’d have time to also earn a master’s degree. However, online degree programs are gaining popularity among those of us who don’t have time to attend graduate class every day or don’t live near an accredited university.

Despite the plethora of online degrees offered, there are several factors to consider when choosing a university. As with in-person master’s degrees, knowing your goals is critical so that you end up with knowledge and skills you can actually use in the classroom, whether you’re focused on special education, elementary teaching, or educational technology. Other key considerations in choosing your program are:

  • Is the program flexible and adaptable to new educational trends or knowledge, or is it stuck in its ways and constantly using the same old curriculum?
  • Does the program give you a way to collaborate with your peers and professors?
  • Is the school committed to a strong “onboarding” process (in other words, helping its new online students to feel engaged and part of the virtual classroom)?

By reading the school’s description of its program, as well as looking at reviews from sites such as U.S. News or the NEA, you’ll get a better picture of each university’s pros and cons.

While rankings change on a yearly basis, the following schools were rated highly during 2013 for their master of education online program. Information about prices, and the best bang for your buck, is also included.

Top Schools for 2013-2014
U.S. News ranks schools based on multiple factors. When considering the best online programs, the organization looked at:

  • Admissions selectivity
  • Student engagement
  • Faculty credentials and training
  • Student services and technology

St. John’s University, in Queens, New York, was at the top of the heap for this year. The school has made an effort to fully integrate online students into its community and to provide the same high quality education online as it does in-person. St. John’s includes specializations such as Teaching Children with Disabilities in Childhood Education, a TESOL certificate, and a degree in educational administration and being a school building leader. The University also belongs to the Sloan-C Consortium, which supports schools offering online degrees by providing resources to both students and faculty.

Also highly rated for 2013 was Auburn University, in Auburn, Alabama. Its online master of education degree is tailored especially for students who are already working full-time, and online courses are provided by way of recording the education classes on campus. Auburn offers numerous specializations within its online degree, including foreign language emphases and a degree program designed specifically for agriscience education. The school also gives online students the option of an “alternative” master’s degree, which is a step above a bachelor’s degree but does not require the same amount of work as a traditional master’s degree. This flexibility makes Auburn stand out from some other schools.

South Dakota State University took third in this year’s rankings. SDSU offers an array of education specialties to its online students, including curriculum and instruction, educational administration, and counseling and human resources. Within the C&I program, the university gives students even more specific choices as to whether they focus on adult and higher education, career and technical education, or elementary/secondary education and a particular subject area.

Other top schools, and the basis for their ratings, can be found in the U.S. News online graduate degree list for 2013.

Program offerings are important, but knowing that you can afford your education is critical, too. According to GetEducated.com, a consumer group that compiles school ratings, the following schools were ranked highly in terms of offering both an economical and a valuable online education:

-          Lamar University, for its online Master of Education in Educational Technology Leadership

-          East Carolina University, for its Master of Arts in Education

-          Appalachian State University, for its Master of Arts in Educational Media, Instructional Technology Specialist, and New Media & Global Education

Tuition for these three schools, for state residents, was in the $6000-7000 range. For out-of-state attendees, tuition rose to approximately $8000 for Lamar and upwards of $25,000 for ECU and ASU. Overall, 106 schools were ranked according to their affordability and program quality.

Once you’ve assessed several potential degree programs in terms of their course offerings, quality of faculty, and price tag, you should be able to narrow down your options for an online master’s degree and find a program that fits your individual needs. Though it can be difficult to manage the time needed to both teach and study, keep in mind that your master’s degree will not only improve your ability to work with students but will advance your career, as well. Stick with it!