Earning an advanced degree is no small accomplishment. According to the United States Census Bureaui, in 2021, only 14.4% of the U.S. population (24.1 million individuals) age 25 and older earned an advanced degree. That is an increase from 10.9% in 2011 demonstrating, perhaps, a trend towards increased minimum qualifications for many jobs, individuals’ desires to increase their job-related knowledge, and/or an ambition to prepare for a Ph.D. program.

Pursuing graduate study is a considerable investment of time and money. Students often sacrifice other priorities like family time or vacations to earn a degree they hope will help them start a career, switch careers, or advance within their current career. Therefore, anyone considering graduate school needs to be a critical and educated consumer.

There are many master’s programs to choose from and deciding which school to attend might feel overwhelming at times. To help make this important decision, this guide was developed to assist prospective graduate students in identifying, understanding, and leveraging the key factors they should consider when researching graduate programs. It is important to note that the factors used to create this guide are not meant to determine the “best” program in the field. Instead, these factors are meant to assist students in comparing programs that best fit their unique situations, desires, and goals in order to help them find the “right” program on an academic, professional, and personal level.

13 Factors to Consider When Evaluating Graduate-Level Communication Programs

The following 13 factors are presented in no particular order. We recommend prospective students start by reviewing the description of each factor. Then, download the provided blank comparison chart and fill-in the details about each school to which you are considering applying. Completing this chart will help you identify aspects of each program and help you align those aspects with your goals and needs.

School and Program Accreditation

Accreditation is a process of regulation and peer review that helps ensure higher education institutions meet acceptable standards of quality. There are several levels of accreditation (national, regional, programmaticii) awarded by dedicated accrediting agencies or discipline-specific groups. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEAiii) is a non-profit higher education association that reviews entire institutions through its six regional accrediting commissions. Regional accreditation by one of these six commissions is considered the most prestigious and widely accepted type of accreditation for institutions of higher education. A school’s accreditation status can usually be found on their website. Another option for researching a school’s accreditation status is the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs tool which was built to help students find the accreditation status of colleges and universities.

In lieu of regional accreditation, some schools may choose to pursue national accreditation through an organization recognized by CHEA. However, most schools that pursue national accreditation operate under a for-profit model or mainly provide vocational or technical training. Students considering a nationally accredited school should determine if the credits earned will be transferrable to another school and if their degree will be accepted as equally valid when compared to earning a degree from a regionally accredited school. For example, students who think they might want to pursue a Ph.D. program after completing their master’s degree should reach out to prospective Ph.D. programs to confirm that these programs will recognize a master’s degree from a school with a national accreditation.

Note: MastersinCommunications.com’s comprehensive database of master’s in communication programs only contains non-profit institutions that have been accredited by one of the six regional accrediting commissions.

Programmatic Accreditation is a type of accreditation conferred by a non-profit organization that focuses on a particular industry. For example, in the field of journalism and mass communication, one popular accreditor is the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC). In Public Relations, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) offers a Certification in Education for Academic Programs in Public Relations (CEPR). In the field of communication, programmatic accreditation is an optional process and not as imperative as attending a program offered by a school that has regional accreditation. However, programmatic accreditation is another factor to consider when researching programs as it ensures a program’s curriculum meets the standards of a third-party organization.

When selecting a school, prospective students should ask questions about accreditation to ensure an independent third party has confirmed the quality of the program they are interested in.


Research the accreditation of any school and program you are interested in. Understand the type of accreditation and who awarded it. Confirmation of quality by an independent third party helps ensure your degree will be widely recognized.

Admission Requirements

Understanding a program’s admission requirements is an important step in the decision-making process as it allows prospective students to narrow down options to programs for which they most likely qualify for admission. In addition, applying to graduate school is different from applying to an undergraduate degree program where a school might be reviewing tens of thousands of applications. In general, when graduate programs review applications, they are trying to determine if an applicant has the ability to be successful at the graduate level while at the same time ensuring the program is a good fit for the student’s needs and goals. Therefore, many graduate programs review student applications holistically, taking into account both an applicant’s past academic achievements as well as why they wish to pursue a graduate degree in communication.

While admissions requirements vary by school, most schools ask applicants to submit a similar list of materials with their application. These materials typically include a copy of an applicant’s undergraduate transcripts (to confirm they earned a bachelor’s degree and that it is from an accredited institution), a statement of purpose or essay, letters of recommendation, a resume, and possibly graduate test scores from the GRE or GMAT exam. Note that standardized tests are increasingly being dropped by schools as an admissions requirement, but some programs still require them. There are also schools that require graduate test scores but allow well qualified applicants to waive the requirement. For these schools, GRE waivers maybe granted to applicants who meet a higher minimum GPA threshold, have several years of work experience, and/or have already completed a graduate degree in another field. International applicants often have additional requirements like achieving a certain score on an English language proficiency exam.

It is a good idea for applicants to speak with an admissions representative from each school before submitting a formal application to learn more about a school’s decision-making process, whether or not they cap the size of an incoming class, and more. Often, speaking with an admissions representative will reveal insights that are not published on a school’s website and can help an applicant better understand their chances of being accepted into the program. While an admissions representative will not discourage an applicant from applying, their responses may allow an applicant to “read between the lines” if they do not offer a firm response on the applicant’s chances for admission.

For example, if a program has a minimum GPA requirement, applicants can ask if that minimum is a firm number or if some applicants with lower GPAs are admitted. If applicants with lower GPAs than the stated minimum are accepted, applicants can ask what elements of those students’ applications helped them overcome the minimum GPA expectation. Another benefit of speaking with an admissions advisor or program director before applying is the opportunity to build a personal relationship with program representatives. While it is hard to quantify the impact those calls may have on an applicant’s admissions decision, admissions committees often rely on insights gained by admissions representatives because they are on the front lines working with applicants as they prepare their applications. Furthermore, taking the initiative to call an admissions representative can demonstrate strong interest and also help applicants tailor their application to the program’s values and mission statement.

Admissions representatives can also provide students with information about application deadlines and start dates for programs. Many programs allow students to start a program in the fall, spring or summer semesters; however, some programs only start in the fall semester. There are also programs that use alternative academic calendars that allow students to start a program at six or more points throughout the year. Another important consideration for students to ask about is whether or not a program uses rolling admissions. Schools that use rolling admissions review applications as they are received and accept students until a cohort or admissions cycle is full. This means these programs can fill up before an application deadline is reached. In these situations, it can benefit a student to submit their application as soon as they have it ready as opposed to waiting until the application deadline.

Finally, many graduate programs have a selective admissions process which means that even if an applicant meets all the minimum requirements for admission, they may not be accepted into the program. For more information on the application process including advice on how to apply, check out our guide entitled: Advice for Applying to Master’s In Communication Programs.

Note for International Students: Master’s programs, especially master’s programs offered online, may have different admissions requirements for international students residing abroad versus those already living in the United States on an F-1 or J-1 student visa. International students with a student visa are required to complete the majority of their courses on-campus and international students looking to study in the U.S. must enroll in an on-campus program in order to be eligible for a student visa. As a result, international applicants should reach out to programs to inquire about admissions requirements, any admissions restrictions, and whether or not the school supports international student visas, before applying to a campus-based or online program offered by a college or university in the U.S.


Make a list of admissions requirements for each program of interest. Reach out to each school’s admissions representative to ask questions and introduce yourself to help you stand out from the crowd. Write down application deadlines so that you know exactly how much time you have to prepare your application.

Program Administration and Online Programs

The administrators who oversee programs are often responsible for a wide range of areas that can include but are not limited to curriculum, instructional design, faculty hiring and oversight, staff oversight, policy enforcement, and more. This work has traditionally been handled by administrators and staff employed directly by universities. However, this traditional arrangement is not always the case with online programs. For that reason, specifically related to online programs, it is important to understand who is responsible for delivering, maintaining, and providing technical assistance for a program before applying. Is the program overseen by professional in-house staff who are employees of the university and if so, do they have experience launching and delivering online degree programs? Or are the operations of the online program managed by an outside company? If yes, what does the relationship entail and whom do students interact with when they have questions or concerns about their online learning experience?

Outside companies who manage online programs for schools are referred to as Online Program Management (OPM) companies. As schools seek to increase their offerings of online programs, these companies, most of which are for-profit businesses, offer services to colleges including program development, student recruitment and enrollment, course design, technical assistance, marketing services, and more. These services are offered to colleges either as a package or a fee-for-service model.

The involvement of OPMs has been a contentious topic in higher education. Supporters of allowing schools to work with OPMs argue that these companies play an important role in helping schools expand their online offerings. OPMs have expertise in developing and launching online degree programs, a process that can take schools years to complete if they do not have internal resources and staff with experience educating and providing services to online students. OPMs also help financially by fronting initial costs to develop new programs or bring existing programs online. However, OPMs recuperate their investment through revenue share agreements that can range between 50%-65% of revenue, which can lead to higher tuition costs for students.

OPM critics express concern that there is a fundamental conflict of interest and goals between these companies and the schools they work with. While non-profit universities focus on providing students with the best possible education, OPMs are for-profit businesses that have a primary goal of making money. Critics argue this contributes to the commercialization of higher education, resulting in higher costs for students and the erosion of institutional control of academic missions.iv

As of 2023, the U.S. Department of Education has been investigating OPM/university relationships and their implications for students. According to Under Secretary James Kvaal, “Online education has the potential to meet the needs of many students and lower costs,” he said, “But we are concerned about the growth in loan debt and want to ensure students get value for their money.”v

Understanding whether an online program’s staff are employees of the university or an OPM is important. It is also important to ask how long the program has been offered online and how much expertise the administration has in managing online programs and educating online students. This knowledge will help applicants better understand who is in control and how that may impact their experience, cost of attendance, and more. (Note: The Department of Education has also started changing the disclosure requirements for university-OPM relationships, which should help students have better transparency regarding these partnerships.)


Ask programs if they are administered by an in-house staff or an OPM. If an OPM is involved, ask for details about their involvement and expertise, and who controls the programs’ administration. For schools who are using an in-house staff, ask how many years of experience they have educating online students.

Non-Profit vs. For-Profit Institutions

Graduate students spend a lot of time, money, and effort earning their degree and as a result, that degree should hopefully in some way provide a return on the student’s investment in the future. While colleges and universities cannot guarantee a master’s degree will lead to career advancement or an increase in salary, students should conduct thorough research to ensure that the master’s degree they earn is recognized and well-respected within the industries in which they want to work.

Non-profit schools receive funds from tuition, the federal government, endowments, donations, and more. These schools can be both public state schools or private schools. Non-profit schools reinvest profit (often referred to as residual funds since non-profits are not meant to generate a profit) into their institution to help fulfill their educational mission.

For-profit schools do not receive federal or state support. They are a business and rely on tuition as their primary income source. These schools reinvest some funds, but also pay money to investors and often spend more money on non-education related expenses, such as marketing and student recruitment. It is important to note that for-profit schools can and do hold institutional and programmatic accreditation. However, while large for-profit institutions may have regional accreditation, many of the smaller for-profit schools pursue national accreditation, which as noted above, is not as prestigious as regional accreditation.

For-profit schools are often criticized for their low graduation rates, high costs, low-quality education, and more. While they are typically easier to get into and in some cases have open admissions policies wherein they accept all students who meet the minimum requirements for admission, a degree from one of these schools may not provide the same career advancement opportunities as earning a master’s degree from a non-profit public or private institution. In addition, students may or may not be able to transfer graduate credits earned at a for-profit institution to another school, and some Ph.D. programs may give preference to applicants who earned their degree from a non-profit institution.

The Attorney General of California recently commented on the status of for-profit schools:

“For-profit schools have been accused of fraud, abuse, and predatory practices targeting the poor, veterans and minorities by offering expensive degrees that often fail to deliver promised skills and jobs. Students have complained about aggressive recruiting practices, misleading graduation and employment rates, and illegal debt collection practices—their complaints suggest that many graduates can’t get jobs or afford to repay their loans. If you are not careful, enrolling in a for-profit school may leave you under a mountain of debt, but not help you get a job.”vi

Scrutiny on for-profit colleges, along with the Department of Education’s gainful employment requirements, has resulted in changes for some for-profit schools. For example, several for-profit institutions have closed, some have tried to convert to non-profit institutions, and others have been sold to large public university systems. However, because of their history of questionable business practices, and a plethora of alternative program options offered by nonprofit institutions, prospective students may want exclude programs offered by for-profit colleges. Notwithstanding, students considering a program offered by a for-profit institution should carefully review the school and program before enrolling to ensure it will meet their needs and desired goals.


Ask every school if they are operating in a for-profit or non-profit model.

Tuition Costs, Financing Options, and Graduate Assistantships

Students should understand that pursuing a graduate degree can be expensive and that tuition costs and university fees can vary greatly between schools. Tuition costs can also vary between programs at the same school and many public colleges and universities charge different tuition rates for in-state versus out-of-state residents. To make things more complex, some colleges and universities also charge different tuition rates for campus-based versus exclusively online students. (Note: Students who are enrolled in an on-campus program who take online classes are typically charged on-campus tuition rates.) For example, an institution may charge different tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state on-campus students, but have a single tuition rate for online students regardless of whether they are classified as in-state or out-of-state residents.

The first step students should take is to ensure they understand the total cost of each program they are considering. This means students need to know the total tuition, total fees, and any “additional” expenses such as textbooks or travel for required residencies if the program is online. (Note: Some online master’s in communication programs require in-person attendance on-campus or at a third-party location during the program and travel expenses to these require residencies are often not included in tuition rates and university fees.) Students should also ask if tuition costs and fees are likely to increase throughout the program or if tuition rates are fixed until they graduate. While most colleges publish this information on their websites, it can sometimes be difficult to find or difficult to understand; therefore, students should reach out to their programs of interest and ask for help determining the true cost of a program before applying.

There are a variety of financing options available to students who need help paying for a graduate degree and students should investigate all financing options as they vary by school. For example, some schools and programs make federal loans available to graduate students and others do not. For students who do not have the resources to pay for their education expenses and who do not have any other means of financial support, loans can help those students earn their degree while deferring costs until after they graduate. Students who choose to borrow money, should be sure to only borrow the actual amount of money they need to pay their tuition bill. Students who borrow more money than they need now have to pay more back later, and with interest, which adds to their expenses post-graduation. Students should understand all the financial details and only borrow what they need. A good piece of advice for students is to connect with the financial aid offices at each school they are considering to ask them about financing options.

In addition to financial aid, students should search the Internet for scholarships and inquire with schools about opportunities to work as a Graduate Assistant, Research Assistant, or Teaching Assistant to help defray costs. While graduate assistantships are more common for campus-based programs, some online master’s in communication programs may have a limited number of assistantships available to students. Students who think they would like to pursue an assistantship should reach out to their programs of interest before applying to inquire about opportunities and to determine if they have additional requirements for eligibility. For example, some programs may require that students have a higher undergraduate GPA to be eligible for an assistantship or that students start the program at a specific start date (i.e., fall admission as opposed to spring or summer admission).

The federal government also offers employers reimbursements for up to $5,250 of tax-free educational expenses per employee each year. Prospective students should ask their employer about any education benefits they may offer. Students can also consult with a tax advisor about any potential tax benefits like deductions for education.vii


Know the total cost to earn a degree including all tuition, fees, and any other expenses.

School Payment Models

Once students understand the total cost of attending a program, they need to know when payments will be due. Not all schools charge tuition in the same way so students should not make any assumptions. While many schools follow a traditional model of students paying for courses as they enroll each term, schools may have different models or factors that may impact when payments need to be made. For example, instead of a pay-as-you-go model, some schools may charge flat fees per semester if they require students to take a certain course load. Others, like competency-based programs, may charge a flat fee for a specific period of time. Students using employer benefits should ask schools about direct-bill opportunities or the ability to defray payments to the end of each semester if their employer only reimburses them after the completion of a course.

Students should also inquire about any late payment penalties. For example, if a student’s employer only reimburses them after a semester, they may want to pay the tuition bill with their own funds and get reimbursed by their employer later. Students who do not have the funds available to do that should inquire with their school about the ability to defer full payment by paying a small portion of the bill by the due date and whether or not they will incur a penalty by doing so. This can allow students to make an initial payment and they can settle their full bill once they are reimbursed by their employer. The amount of potential fees can vary by school and not paying a bill can impact a student’s ability to register for future semesters or courses. Students should make sure they understand all the implications of each financing option for their education, prior to enrolling.


Make sure you understand when you will be billed, for how much, and when payments are expected. List any financial penalties and other consequences for late payments.

Program Focus Areas and Specializations

The field of Communication is diverse and varied. This is reflected in the large number of graduate programs in the field and the variety of focus areas and specializations. (At this time, MastersinCommunications.com’s comprehensive directory has more than 300 schools offering over 500 Master’s in Communication programs.) Students should understand that a given graduate communication program cannot serve the interests or goals of all students. Instead, most programs choose to focus on one or more areas of specialization, often related to the expertise of their faculty and educators. Therefore, while students might want to attend a particular school based on name, reputation, or geographical location, if that program’s focus does not match a student’s interests, they may want to look elsewhere.

To determine the best program options for their individual situations, students can begin by determining their goals for graduate study and their area(s) of interest. For example, if a student wants to pursue a Ph.D. after earning their master’s degree, they should find a program that is built to prepare students for that pathway. A program meant to prepare students for Ph.D. study will likely include courses focused on research and a written thesis as a culminating experience. Conversely, professionally oriented programs that are designed to prepare students for careers within a specific field will likely focus less on research, more on skills, and could culminate in a Capstone experience that provides students the opportunity to bring together the knowledge and skills they have learned throughout their program to produce a large project that can be used to demonstrate their abilities during a job search. There are also programs that offer a curriculum that allows students to choose which career path—academia or industry–they would like to pursue.

Note: To learn more about the different types of Master’s in Communication programs, please see our guide on The Difference Between Academic and Applied Master’s in Communication Programs.

When comparing programs, students should also dig into the details of each degree. For example, many schools offer master’s in communication programs that lack formal specializations. Some of these schools may offer a limited number of electives in a specific focus area, while others may offer a plethora of electives across numerous focus areas. There are also schools that offer distinct specializations with specific courses or electives that students take in order to complete their degree. However, naming conventions for these specializations are not standardized across universities, and two schools that offer the same specialization may have very different curricula. Therefore, even if a school offers a “strategic communication”, “integrated marketing communication”, or “marketing and public relations” focus, students should look at the actual courses the program offers, as they may find a considerable difference in curricula.

Students should understand what they want to learn and their purpose for obtaining an advanced degree. Armed with that information, students will be able to compare each program’s offerings and determine which is best suited to help them achieve their goals.


Determine what you want to learn and what your goals are for your advanced degree. Then, list the features of each program to determine if the curriculum and other program features align with your goals.

Program Curricula and Online Instruction Methods

A key part of a student’s program research process should involve finding the course names and course descriptions for every required and elective course in the programs they are investigating. While a program’s marketing content should give students an idea of the program’s focus, examining specific course offerings will be a better gauge to determine if the program is a good fit or not. Students should try to find a copy of the degree plan for each program of interest and identify which courses are required and what courses are available as electives. If the school does not have a degree plan readily available on their website, students should search for the school’s graduate catalog or academic bulletin, which should have this information.

Please note, students should not assume that they can take any course at a university or within a program as an elective. There are often restrictions on which courses will count towards their degree. As noted above, some schools may have very few elective options, while others might have a large variety. There are also some programs that have a set curriculum wherein all students take the same required courses with no elective options. Conversely, there are programs that only require a limited number of core courses (e.g., two or three) and students are free to tailor their degree to their individual needs by selecting seven or eight electives.

While time consuming, it is recommended that students try to find a syllabus for each course they will take in the program, and to take note of the listed learning outcomes. Beyond the course title and description, the learning outcomes will give students the best idea of the knowledge and skills they will be learning.

It is important to pay attention to the details and not to make any assumptions. Just because a course is listed on a website or in a piece of marketing collateral, that does not mean the course is regularly offered. If there are specific classes that look interesting, students should make sure to ask about their ability to take those classes, how often they are offered, and in which terms are they offered.

Many schools market their program as “flexible” but what that really means varies by program. Is the degree plan flexible? Is the order of courses flexible? Is the number of courses that can be taken in any given semester flexible? Can students take a semester off if needed? Are students required to take a certain number of classes each semester? Students should also know what course loads are associated with part-time and full-time status since those classifications may impact the cost of a program and a student’s access to financial aid. Changing enrollment status may also impact the availability of classes based on how often each class is offered and the speed at which a student wishes to complete the program. If a program admits students in cohorts and expects them to progress through the program at the same speed, it is important to know what options exist if a student falls behind or wants to work ahead.

Each course is only as good as its instructor and the design of the course. Most faculty are experts in their field, but many do not have formal training in course design or learning theories. For this reason, ask who creates or designs the courses. Are instructors left to their own devices? Do faculty work with instructional designers or a center for teaching to create their courses? Students should also ask how often are courses updated and does the program and faculty routinely review their curricula to ensure it is up-to-date with the latest innovations in their fields. Some programs have advisory boards designed to ensure students are learning knowledge and skills to advance in today’s job market.

Finally, students who are interested in online programs should ask if the courses are offered in an asynchronous (no live classes) or a synchronous (live scheduled classes) format. There are advantages and challenges to both models, so it is important for students to make sure the format aligns with their needs. For example, if students don’t want to be tied down to attending class at a specific time, a course that uses asynchronous instruction may be the best option.

Students who prefer to attend live online lectures or who want an online program that more closely resembles a traditional on-campus program should look for a program that uses synchronous instruction. If a course does use synchronous instruction, students should ask when live sessions typically take place (e.g., in the early morning, evening, or on the weekends) and if attendance is required. Students should also ask if the class meetings are recorded and posted online so anyone who missed class can review the meeting. Some programs only offer one type of instruction method, while other programs may use a mix of asynchronous and synchronous instruction depending on the course and/or instructor.


Research classes and align those details with your goals. Ask yourself, will these classes help you achieve your goals? Make notes on scheduling, delivery, flexibility and anything else that is important to you.

Faculty and Instructors

While a program’s curriculum is important, the faculty whom students will be learning from is equally as important as what they will be learning. Schools have different models of faculty and instructor employment and it is good to understand the model for each program. Note that within universities, different departments or colleges can have different teaching models, so students should be sure to ask about the program they are specifically interested in.

Prospective students may encounter competing opinions that full-time tenured faculty are “better” than adjunct instructors or that faculty at smaller schools are more engaged with students compared to faculty at larger schools. When researching programs, students should try not to make assumptions or buy into these blanket generalizations. Inquire at each program about who is teaching their classes, what the administration values in a “strong” instructor, and what instructor expectations exist.

One person may wish to learn from a tenured faculty member who is a highly regarded researcher in their field. Another person may prefer to learn from an adjunct instructor who is working in their field as their primary job and working as an adjunct on the side. One model is not better than another. The quality of instruction boils down to the instructor’s knowledge, motivation, effort, skill, and more. While it can be a goal, in reality, every student is not going to make a strong connection with every instructor they encounter; however, students should ask themselves what they value in an instructor and determine if their preferences and needs align with the program’s expectations for their faculty.

Most programs have a list of faculty members within each department on their website or in the university’s directory, but if they do not, students can typically find faculty names on past syllabi or by looking up course schedules. If that does not work, students can try searching for instructors on Google to see what they can find. For example, are there online teaching reviews? Are there formal reviews from the school available? What are students saying about these instructors on online review sites or other online forums? Remember, just because an instructor taught a course in the past, does not mean they will be teaching it during the semester that a student takes the course.


Determine what you value in an instructor and ask questions about who is teaching and what their qualifications are.

School Reputation and School Rankings

While some people may argue otherwise, a school’s reputation can help open doors. In reality, if one person tells a prospective employer that they graduated from a highly regarded Ivy League school (or a highly regarded state university) and another person tells this same employer that they graduated from a small regional college, it is safe to assume that the employer’s opinion is going to be shaped by their existing biases. This can be especially important when trying to enter a new field without having years of work experience. Because of that, school reputation matters. However, for working professionals looking to gain new skills and knowledge that will allow them to advance in their current field, a school’s reputation may not be as important as adding a career-relevant advanced degree to their already extensive work history.

Also, students should not let a school’s reputation stop them from applying to a graduate program at that school. For example, one recruiter from an Ivy League school noted that their greatest challenge in recruiting graduate students was the competitiveness of their undergraduate admissions. While the school’s undergraduate admission rate was around 4%, she stated the admission rate for the graduate program was closer to 50% and their application pool was much lower than people might expect. As mentioned above, admission to graduate school is not the same as applying to an undergraduate degree program, so even if a student was not accepted to a specific college or university for their undergraduate degree, that does not mean they should not try applying to a graduate program at that same university, assuming the school’s program meets many of the criteria discussed in the sections above.

School rankings can impact a school’s reputation, but students should tread lightly and be careful about putting too much stock into university rankings they find searching the Internet. There has been a lot of controversy about the methods used to rank schools and students should consider the source of any ranking along with the criteria used to evaluate the program. Using the criteria in this guide, students can create their own personal rankings based on the factors that are most important to them, not unknown factors that a third-party source used to rank programs that may not even be accurate.

For example, for students who value high levels of instructor-student interaction, prefer a non-competitive environment, and require academic support services, a school’s ranking based on alumni giving rates, faculty salaries, and standardized test scores may not be important to them.


What is the reputation of the school? Does that reputation create any benefits or challenges for you?

Geographic Location

For students planning on completing their graduate program in person, the location of a school’s campus may be one of their top priorities, especially if they want to attend a school that is close to their current home. Some students might prefer a school located in the region where they plan on residing and working. Then there are students who might prefer studying online so they have the flexibility to study from any location. This is especially important to students who are required to travel for work and plan to continue working while pursuing an advanced degree, or for students who are in the military, or spouses of someone in the military, where they may be forced to move during their degree program.

Students who are considering online programs should make sure to inquire about any residency requirements. While some programs can be completed 100% online, others have residency requirements where students are asked to attend in-person events whether on occasion or at specific points of the semester or program. Students interested in meeting classmates and faculty members face-to-face may want to find a program that incorporates in-person residencies; however, there are only a handful of master’s in communication programs that require in-person residencies, as most programs can be completed fully online.

One important aspect people often overlook is considering their learning style. While there are students who may want to attend an online or on-campus program for certain reasons, they should carefully consider which style of classes offers them the best chance of success by aligning with their preferred learning style. For example, online courses often include recorded lectures that students can watch at their own pace and at a time when they can and are focused on studying. These online lectures often come with downloadable PDF’s and lecture transcripts. This learning format may benefit students who are more independent learners and those who prefer to learn on their own schedule. On the contrary, for students who prefer to learn by listening and taking notes along with a live lecture, and benefit from being able to engage in conversations and ask questions in real-time, a lecture style in-person course format may be best for them.

Students who are unsure if they can be successful in an online course may want to try one out before enrolling in an online graduate degree program. While some programs may allow prospective students to audit an online course, there are several organizations that offer free online courses in numerous subject areas that students can find online.

Finally, while the majority of online master’s in communication programs accept students from all 50 U.S. states, a handful of programs may not accept students from every state due to state authorization requirements. Therefore, prospective students applying to an out-of-state online program should always confirm the school accepts students from their state of residence before applying.


Understand your preferred learning style and modality. Use that information as one factor that helps you decide if you can thrive in one modality (online vs. in-person) or either.

Life Beyond Courses

While investigating the program of study, courses, faculty, and the other criteria mentioned above is important, the value of experiences beyond classes should not be overlooked. This includes a wide range of activities like opportunities to study abroad, complete an internship, attend industry association events, study independently with an instructor, study with classmates while completing group projects, or completing a research project with a professor. Learning is not exclusively reserved for a “classroom.” The value of experiential learning, especially in the communication field, should not be overlooked. Additionally, what support do students receive if they want to participate in these types of experiences? For example, for students who wish to complete an internship, are they required to find potential internship placements on their own or does the program help find opportunities?

Beyond the classroom, prospective students should also ask about networking opportunities and the program’s culture. Are there formal events to network with fellow students, faculty, alumni, and administrators? Does the college/program/department include graduate students in activities or are most activities reserved for undergraduates? Are their online communities that students can join?

Additionally, what level of engagement and support can students expect from faculty and staff? For example, if someone is struggling in a class, what support services are available? Can graduate students who are interested in searching for a new job receive free career services from the university’s career center? Are those career services also available to students in the future as an alum? Is there a dedicated librarian for the program to help students with research? Is there a writing center that can help students with papers? Whether a student is considering a campus-based or online program, they should ask all of these questions as they research and compare potential programs. Online students should also inquire about technical support, what happens if they cannot access their coursework after hours, and whether there will be someone online who can assist them.

A graduate degree requires both personal sacrifices and a large financial commitment, and students should ensure the program they choose will best help them succeed with their current and future goals.


List opportunities and services available to graduate students. Do not be afraid to ask questions–the more information you have the better when it comes to making a decision about which program to attend.

Extra Factors to Consider

While this article and the key considerations it outlines are quite detailed, they do not constitute a comprehensive list. At this point, prospective students should ask themselves “what else?” What else matters that would impact the decision-making process for them? What extra or unique aspect does a program have that may tip the scales in its favor? For example, for international students, does the school provide English language support and does the school have a strong international students center?

Are there any other advantages to attending a particular program? For example, if an online student lives near a school’s physical campus, are they allowed to use school resources like the gym, transportation, library, etc.? How active is the alumni network? Some schools cultivate such pride and sense of community in their alumni that these alumni prefer to give back to students or recent grads through mentorships, internships, scholarships, and more.

Finally, some students may be nervous about returning to graduate school after a long break and/or wonder if they will be the only person from their age/experience group in a program. If this is a concern, be sure to ask about student demographics and what the background of a typical student in the program looks like. While campus-based master’s programs may draw more students directly out of an undergraduate degree program, online programs often cater to older working professionals.

Online programs also give students the opportunity to study with classmates from around the U.S. and for some programs around the globe. This gives students access to a broader and more diverse range of student experiences, which can be especially helpful for students in the field of communication who wish to study interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, marketing and public relations, health communication, political communication, and more.


List any “extra” features of a program. Then consider if they bring any benefit to you.

Conclusions and Final Thoughts

To help your decision-making process, a chart, along with the action items for each factor, has been included below. Students can also download an editable copy of the chart as a Word document or as a PDF document.

While this article provides a list of major factors you should consider, it is likely you will have additional factors that are important to you. For that reason, you can add additional rows to the existing chart. You can also add additional columns for each school you are considering.

The bottom line is that research, careful consideration, and asking questions is critical in this process. Graduate school is a major investment of your time, energy, and finances. You want to make sure you are making the right decision to help you achieve your personal and professional goals. Any school should be willing to take the time to speak with you about their program and help you understand how their program aligns with your personal preferences and objectives. If they will not take the time to answer your questions, you should take that into account when making a decision on which program to attend. You should also expect school representatives to highlight the benefits of their program and not degrade any other schools or their programs.

Remember, when researching programs, the “best” program is one that meets your criteria and helps you achieve your educational goals.

Good luck with your graduate school journey.

About the Author: Dr. Evan Kropp is the Executive Director of online graduate programs at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Mass Communications. He oversees operations for all online master’s and certificate programs including marketing, admissions, student advising, curriculum oversight, faculty recruitment, and staff oversight. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in Communications from the University of Hartford and his Ph.D. in Communications from the University of Georgia. He also earned an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in University Teaching from the University of Georgia and a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Leadership and Management from the University of Massachusetts.

Chart of Factors to Consider When Applying to a Master’s in Communication Program

Get the downloadable version as a Word document or as a PDF document