Master’s Programs Continue To Grow

December 29, 2022

Master’s programs continue to drive growth in higher education. In 2021, students completed almost 884,000 master’s programs in the US – a 3% increase over 2020 completion volumes, and a 10% increase from five years ago.

So what is driving growth in the master’s education market? Let’s take a look.

The Big Three Disciplines – Business, Education, and Health

At the discipline level, Business programs are the most popular, followed by programs in Education and Health. These three disciplines accounted for over half (54%) of all master’s completions in the US in 2021.

Within the top 10, disciplines with the highest year-over-year growth in completions were Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies up 18% and Psychology up 7%.

2021 Master's Completions: Top DisciplinesSource: Gray Associates Program Evaluation System

The Top 10 Programs

At the program level, MBA programs are by far the largest master’s program in the Business discipline and overall, with over 114,000 completions in 2021, more than three times the volume of the next largest program – MSW (Master’s in Social Work). Online completions account for a significant share of completions for both of these programs. More than half of MBA completions were online, and almost one-third of MSW programs were online in 2021.

Business Analytics programs are growing quickly: 2021 completions were up 27% year-over-year and have grown an eye-popping 545% since 2016 (45% CAGR). 13% of these completions were online in 2021. Business Analytics has likely cannibalized MBA programs, slowing the growth in MBAs.

2021 Master's Completions: Largest Programs

Source: Gray’s Program Evaluation System (PES)

Four programs in the Education discipline made it to the Top 10 list, including Educational Leadership, General Education, Curriculum and Instruction, and Special Education. Each of these programs had between 15,000 and 20,000 completions in 2021, although year-over-year growth varied. 

In Health Professions disciplines, pay for MSW graduates is a serious concern – Gray employment data suggests that wages for MSWs are low, despite the potentially high cost of the required undergraduate and master’s degrees. MSN programs remain very popular, even with pandemic-related disruptions, and were the fifth-largest master’s program by 2021 completions. Computer Science and Accounting programs round out the list of the ten largest master’s programs in 2021.

Online Is Outperforming On-Ground

US Master's Completions by Modality

Source: Gray’s Program Evaluation System (PES)

Looking at modality, online programs are driving the growth in the master’s segment. Online program completions grew 7% year-over-year in 2021 and were up an impressive 54% from 2016 to 2021. In comparison, on-ground completion volumes actually dropped – from approximately 592,000 completions in 2016 to 561,000 in 2012, a decline of 5%.

Which online programs are the largest? Not surprisingly, the list is similar to the list of the largest master’s programs overall. MBA programs top the list, with over 61,000 online completions in 2021. Registered Nursing (MSN) programs were the second-largest online master’s program, with approximately 12,000 completions. Other nursing programs in the top 10 include Family Practice Nursing (FNP) and Nursing Administration. Education, Social Work, and Healthcare Administration programs round out the list.

2021 Master's Completions: Largest Online Programs

Source: Gray’s Program Evaluation System (PES)

Up Next: Bachelor’s Program Trends

Stay tuned for our next blog, where we will examine program trends at the bachelor’s level.
Previous posts in this series can be accessed here.


Elaine Rowles


Elaine works with Gray’s education clients on strategic planning projects, program portfolio evaluations, program feasibility studies, price benchmarking, and research-intensive custom project work. She has performed in-depth analyses of existing programs and institutions, as well as assessed demand and employment opportunities for new and emerging programs.

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