The Top Online Learning Opportunities in the 5 Largest Graduate Disciplines

Last updated on: May 29, 2023

clock icon 7 minute read
clock icon 7 minute read

New student markets are driving graduate programs that fit into the lives of working adults, and many institutions have identified online programs as an essential part of their growth strategies. However, not all online programs are destined to be successful – factors like labor trends and market saturation will impact how well certain online programs do at a particular institution.

Wiley University Services regularly conducts extensive market research to help our institutional partners identify the programs that present the best opportunities to meet market and student demands. Recently, we did an analysis of the five largest graduate disciplines in higher education and identified the individual programs within each discipline that currently present the the most potential for success in the online environment.

See the list below for our findings.


According to market research conducted by Wiley, business degrees made up the largest number of all graduate degrees (on-ground and online) awarded in 2014 —25 percent. The continuing popularity of business degrees suggests that there is still a robust market for online programs in this discipline.

  • The MBA

The Master of Business Administration accounted for 65 percent of the total number of graduate degrees in business degrees awarded. However, with so many online MBAs now available, the market is highly competitive. One potential area of opportunity and differentiation is to offer specializations in areas that have seen steady growth, such as accounting and marketing.

  • Other Degree Opportunities

According to our research, students are looking for online degrees in other business disciplines but aren’t finding them. Consequently, Wiley believes they offer great opportunity for traction and growth. The areas of most interest include:

  1. Accounting (34 percent growth in programs between 2010-2014)
  2. Human Resource Management
  3. Finance Management
  4. Technology/Information Security Management


After business, education was the second largest discipline for number of master’s degrees awarded in 2014. However, the number of graduates has been decreasing as the number of programs has increased, making this a challenging market for online programs. Still, as one of the largest academic graduate markets, it is still an attractive option: If your school already offers business degrees online, education is the obvious next area for expansion. Our research shows that Education Administration and Special Education offer the best opportunities for online programming.

  • Education Administration

Education Administration focuses on the effective management of schools—a growing concern among communities and parents as well as educators. Wiley market research shows that the total number of online programs in Education Administration increased from 22 to 29 percent from 2012 to 2014, suggesting growing competition. However, the total number of ground programs declined in the same period, suggesting that students prefer the online modality. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that the demographic for this degree consists of older students who have been in the field for a long time. A well-ranked, competitively priced program could do well. In addition, as with MBA programs, there may be opportunities for differentiation through specializations.

  • Special Education

As more children are identified as having special needs, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, sensory processing disorder or learning disabilities, the field of special education has attracted increasing attention. Wiley research shows that the field is relatively stable. There aren’t many online programs, but they are slowly growing in number— 15 percent of educational administration programs were online in 2012, increasing to 19 percent in 2014. In comparison, ground programs grew only by 1 percent in the same period. Further research is needed to determine the optimal range of program offerings, but a strategic selection of specializations or certificate options alongside a general degree is vital given the diversity of need in this area.


Health-related degrees accounted for 13 percent of all master’s degrees awarded in 2014. The increase in graduates is outpacing program growth, making this a very promising market for new online programs. Nursing and public health were the top two graduate programs in 2014, together accounting for nearly half (48 percent) of all health degrees awarded — pointing to these two fields as options with the most potential for online growth.

  • Nursing

There is a growing emphasis in the nursing field on achieving greater levels of education to meet the growing complexity of health care. In 2010, the Institute of Medicine called for 80 percent of all nurses to hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing at a minimum by 2020. Graduate degrees such as the Master of Science in Nursing will increasingly become a requirement instead of a preference for advanced practice roles in both clinical and administrative positions. This push for more education is reflected in the marketplace. Wiley found that today nearly two-thirds of RN to BSN programs are online, while enrollments have been increasingly every year for the last 10 years. The number of RN to MSN programs has tripled, from 70 programs in 1994 to 214 in 2014, with more in the planning stages, according to data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Still, graduate growth is far outpacing program growth—offering continued favorable market conditions for online programs in this field, especially for nurse practitioner programs and MSN programs with specializations in Nurse Education and/or Nursing Administration.

Signs point to potential in doctoral-level programs due to emerging disciplines and a greater focus on preventative and cost-effective health care. The Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) may become the new standard degree for nurse practitioners as they start to take on the role of primary care providers. DNP graduation rates have grown by 25 percent between 2010 and 2014.

Schools may want to consider a suite of nursing programs, from the BSN through the DNP, to better prepare nurses to meet future healthcare needs.

  • Public Health

From 2012 to 2014, public health programs online grew from 16 to 23 percent, mirroring the upward trend in health. The number of public health master’s graduates has remained stable over the last few years, as has the number of new programs in the discipline. Specific opportunities for online programs include public health education and health services administration in addition to the general Master of Public Health degree. Career-oriented specializations, such as Health Systems Management and Public Health, tend to be most successful online.


Public Administration and Social Services is largely split between Social Work and Public Administration, with the number of graduates increasing an average 6 percent every year. Among all master’s graduates in this field, the great majority—85 percent—obtained a Master of Social Work or a Master of Public Administration, pointing to these degrees as the most viable areas of focus.

  • Social Work

Social Work has a very favorable graduate-to-program ratio—new programs entered the market at a rate of about only 2 percent per year, compared to an increase in Master of Social Work graduates of 6 percent per year on average. Wiley’s research indicates a trend of more people choosing to go into social work, and they are most likely going to choose online programs over those on campus. New online social work degree programs may have an advantage over those already in the market, but schools need to move quickly to get them up and running. Opportunities for distinction include market-centric specializations in areas such as substance abuse. Advanced standing and flexible learning options also can offer an edge in a competitive market.

  • Public Administration

New public administration programs continue to enter the market at 3 percent on average per year, creating more program options for fewer students. In addition, the total number of ground programs declined during the same period, pointing to a shift in modality and a competitive online market. This is borne out by statistics in online program growth: 21 percent in 2012 to 31 percent in 2013. Still, the growth of graduates is outpacing online program growth, continuing to make this a favorable market.


Engineering accounted for 6 percent of all master’s degrees awarded in 2014. The field is seeing modest growth—just 5 percent growth in graduates per year on average, with relatively flat competition.

Ground programs remained relatively stable, increasing 1 percent each year while online programs increased by 30 percent in the same time period. The more technical the area of engineering, the less likely it is online due to nature of the content (typically very hands-on) and how it is delivered – which is challenging to replicate online. In addition, according to Wiley’s research, the number of sub-disciplines makes engineering a highly fractured market. To make online engineering programs stand out, innovative online experiences are key, as are offering specific skills that are in demand versus general programs.

Note: All growth statistics refer to the years 2010 through 2014 unless stated otherwise.

  • Let's Talk.

    Complete the form below, and we’ll be in contact soon to discuss how we can help.

    If you have a question about textbooks, please email

  • By submitting your information, you agree to the processing of your personal data as per Wiley's privacy policy and consent to be contacted by email.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.