What's the Real Cost of a Master's in Data Science?

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The value of a data science master's degree is clear. What's less clear is how much a master's in data science actually costs and how to pay for an MSDS once you decide this degree is the right one for you. The key to determining whether you can afford to pursue a Master of Science in Data Science online or on campus is to look at how much data science master's candidates pay for their degrees, what funding sources they use, and whether the ROI of an MSDS makes the cost of this degree largely irrelevant.

Calculating the cost of a graduate degree is rarely a straightforward endeavor, and if you've decided to pursue a Master of Science in Data Science (MSDS), you have to look beyond tuition. In the process of applying for and then pursuing an MSDS, you will pay various fees and buy books and materials, though it's unlikely you'll pay out-of-pocket for everything. You'll probably receive financial aid, grants, and if you're lucky, employer tuition reimbursement.

You should also look at ROI when considering how much a master's in data science costs. The career benefits of earning a master's in data science are numerous and can make the prospect of paying MSDS tuition less daunting. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts employment in data science will grow by 31 percent in the coming decade, which means employers will create more than 10,000 new jobs for data scientists. The skills you learn in a data science master's program will qualify you to step into roles with salaries of around $120,000. If the MSDS program you choose has a reputation for excellence and provides you with tech industry connections, you may earn $200,000 or more.

How much does a master's in data science cost?

Graduate tuition varies significantly from university to university, so researching the average cost of a Master of Science in Data Science won't be particularly illuminating. It's better to consider degree programs individually so you can assess cost in the context of value. Tufts School of Engineering's 32-credit hour online MSDS program costs $1,697 per credit hour, which adds up to $54,304 total tuition. That doesn't mean, however, that you'll pay that much for your degree. Like most master's degree candidates, you'll probably fund your degree and even pay for non-tuition expenses with several forms of financial aid, including loans, scholarships, grants, and fellowships.

Examples of non-tuition expenses

Application fees, enrollment fees, and transcript fees are all examples of non-tuition expenses, though there are many others. While Tufts School of Engineering no longer requires students with undergraduate degrees from accredited U.S. or Canadian institutions to submit GRE scores as part of its online MSDS admission requirements, international students must submit scores and you may need to take the exam if you're applying to multiple data science master's programs. The cost to take the GRE in most countries is $205, and GRE prep materials and courses can cost anywhere from $20 to thousands of dollars. And if you don't have a bachelor's degree in computer science, big data analytics, or a related degree and you haven't taken any upper-level mathematics, statistics, or data science courses, you may need to pay to complete required prerequisite coursework in data management, computer science, or programming languages like Python independently or in a bridge program.

How much a data science master's costs will certainly factor into the academic and professional decisions you make, but cost shouldn't be your primary concern when you're preparing for a career in this field.

These and other non-tuition expenses can add up quickly, and you should include them in cost calculations. Don't forget about the cost of books and online course materials, which vary from year to year as syllabi change. Recently, Tufts professors have asked MSDS candidates to purchase books such as:

Are online degrees less expensive than on-campus programs?

If you're hoping to save money by choosing an online Master of Science in Data Science program, be aware that online master's programs are seldom cheaper than on-campus programs. The best online degree programs often cost universities more to create and deliver because adapting hands-on, high-engagement graduate degree programs for distance learners is no small feat. To give students anytime access to high-quality online master's programs, institutions must invest in robust leading-edge educational platforms and a large highly trained support staff.

In theory, the size of master's degree programs for distance learners is limited only by what the technology can support, and some universities do enroll huge numbers of students in their online degree programs to keep costs low. Highly ranked universities deliberately keep class sizes small, however, so students in online programs receive the same amount of access to professors, meaningful interaction with peers, and pre- and post-graduation support as on-campus students.

Tufts University, in particular, doesn't draw a hard line between its online and in-person graduate programs. As a part-time online master's degree candidate, you'll enjoy a student-centered experience and receive the same dedicated support from enrollment through graduation. The money you invest in tuition will help fund the university's robust technological infrastructure, one-on-one guidance provided by the enrollment team, faculty mentorship, and expert career counseling. You might never visit campus, but you will still benefit from the fact that Tufts is one of the Best Engineering Schools in the nation, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

Students in online degree programs do save in some areas, however

As a student in Tufts' online MSDS, you'll pay tuition comparable to that of on-campus master's degree programs, but you'll be able to keep your full-time job and continue earning income as you pursue your degree. You won't spend time out of the workforce, which can slow your career advancement and lower your lifetime income potential. Your non-tuition expenses won't include commuting costs such as gas, tolls, parking, and vehicle maintenance caused by additional wear and tear. And you won't need to move across the country to attend a world-class graduate-level data science program. Ultimately, an online degree from Tufts School of Engineering might have a similar per-credit cost as an equally prestigious program but be less expensive overall.

'What does a master's in data science cost?' may be the wrong question

A better question to ask is, "How much will it cost not to earn an MSDS?" There are very few entry-level positions for aspiring data scientists. Most data science job openings are filled by professionals who have advanced business analytics and programming experience plus graduate-level degrees. Don't make the mistake of assuming you can work your way up into a data science career from data analysis or business intelligence, or that an online boot camp can take the place of a degree on your resume. Surveys conducted by executive recruitment firm Burtch Works show that a staggering 90 percent of data scientists have advanced degrees and nearly half of all data science job postings require that applicants have master's degrees in data science or a related field. Not earning an MSDS can hamstring your career in the present and the future, so instead of thinking about whether you need a master's—you do—think about what you'll need to do to get one.

How to pay for your MSDS degree

Students enrolled in the Tufts online MSDS program fund their degrees in several ways. While some do pay entirely out of pocket, more take out federal or private student loans. Some are eligible for tuition waivers, tuition rate discounts, and scholarships. Others receive tuition assistance or reimbursement through an employer, work in research assistantships, or receive employer funding.

Researching your funding options before you apply for admission into any master's in data science program is a smart move. Chances are you'll utilize a mix of loans, grants, and other funding sources open to graduate students. The more familiar you are with each option, the easier it will be to pay for your master's degree.

Student loans

There are two distinct types of federal student loans you can use to fund your MSDS, and you apply for both by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

If you're taking six or more credits per semester, look into relatively low-interest Direct Unsubsidized Loans. These loans aren't credit-based, which means they're accessible to students with adverse credit histories, and you don't have to qualify for need-based financial aid to take advantage of them. You can only borrow a total of $138,500 worth of Direct Unsubsidized Loans, including any federal loans used to fund undergraduate study, so outstanding student debt can impact your eligibility.

Your other option is a higher-interest Graduate PLUS Loan (also known as a Direct PLUS Loan). These loans don't have a borrowing limit, which means you can potentially fund the entire cost of your MSDS with Graduate PLUS Loans.

Private student loans are another potential funding source. They're issued by banks, credit unions, and loan organizations like Sallie Mae—all of which have different application requirements, processes, and deadlines. Lenders typically grant private student loans based on creditworthiness, not need, and they often charge higher interest rates. For that reason alone, it's a good idea to exhaust all other possible options before taking a private loan to pay for graduate school.

Tufts scholarships

There are multiple university scholarships open to distance learners pursuing data science degrees at Tufts, including:

  • Alumni scholarships: These MSDS scholarships are for students who earned bachelor's degrees at Tufts. Alumni are also eligible for graduate application fee waivers and discounted tuition as part of the university's Double Jumbo Scholarships.
  • Scholarships for STEM majors from select Bridge Universities: Incoming MSDS students who earned bachelor's degrees at Lafayette College, Olin College, Smith College, Union College, and Wellesley College receive 20 percent tuition scholarships and are eligible for $1,000 merit scholarships when they submit optional quantitative GRE scores of 164 or higher.
  • Yellow Ribbon Scholarships: Veterans enrolled in School of Engineering programs receive $5,000 annually to help fund their degrees as part of an agreement between Tufts and the VA.

There are also hundreds of external scholarships open to master's degree candidates. The best way to find them is on scholarship search sites like FastWeb, where you can search by location, deadline, area of study, and other criteria.

Employer tuition reimbursement

Corporate tuition reimbursement policies vary by company. Some make benefits available to all full-time employees, while others require that employees work in their roles for a set period before they're eligible for funding. It's common for organizations to fund only education directly related to an employee's job, and most place limits on how much funding students can access in a set period—often $5,250 per employee per year, which is the amount organizations can legally offer as a tax-free fringe benefit. Reimbursement amounts above that limit are taxable income, per IRS regulations.

If you're fortunate enough to work for a company that has an official tuition reimbursement program, take advantage of it. Signing up may be as simple as getting written approval from a supervisor and then filing a request with HR. If your company doesn't have an official tuition reimbursement policy, it's still worth asking a manager or HR whether there are funds available for professional development you can tap into to help pay for an MSDS.

Financial aid FAQ

1. When should I apply for student loans, grants, or scholarships?

Fill out the FAFSA application (which will determine your eligibility for loans and grants) as soon as you know you plan to pursue a data science master's, and submit scholarship applications by the first deadline.

2. When will I know if I've received aid?

When you're accepted into the data science master's program, Tufts will post information about your financial aid package on your application status page within about a week.

3. What if I don't qualify for financial aid?

You can pay for an MSDS out of pocket if your financial situation allows or finance your degree with private loans (which typically have no application deadlines) and scholarships. Be sure to set aside plenty of time to find scholarships and prepare application materials to maximize your chances of winning funds.

4. What can I do if I still have questions?

For more information about graduate student loans, scholarships, or how to apply for financial aid, visit Tufts' main Financial Aid site, email studentservices@tufts.edu, or call 617-627-3987.

How and when is tuition due?

Payments are due starting on July 15 for the fall semester and December 15 for the spring semester, but you don't have to pay full tuition for the semester up front. There are several payment options and plans, including monthly payment plans for master’s and doctoral candidates. You can, for instance, pay for an academic year's tuition and expenses in 10 monthly installments or one semester’s tuition and expenses in five monthly installments.

Remember, you get what you pay for

The on-paper cost of a master's in data science can be intimidating, but keep in mind that Tufts' online MSDS is one of the more affordable data science degrees offered by a highly selective elite university with a reputation for innovation and excellence. A data science master's from Tufts is an investment that pays off.

During your time in the online MSDS program, you'll receive tailored guidance from advisers who are leaders in data mining, data visualization, algorithms, and AI—and committed to helping you reach your full potential. You'll benefit from the university's proximity to and relationships with tech firms and startups across industries in the Greater Boston region, even as you learn virtually. You'll study with and learn from peers who are experienced data scientists and data analysts, software engineers, information systems analysts, and product managers. And in less than two years, you'll graduate from the online MSDS program with the high-level applied data science skills, connections (via the Tufts University alumni network), and credentials to launch a career in research or land a top-paying position at a high-profile technology company.

The bottom line is that in data science, there's no substitute for an advanced degree—not even work experience. How much a data science master's costs will certainly factor into the academic and professional decisions you make, but cost shouldn't be your primary concern when you're preparing for a career in this field. Salaries in data science are still much higher than the national average across all occupations. The thousands you invest in an MSDS today may help you earn millions more than you would have otherwise over the course of your career.

Are you ready to take the next step in your data science journey? Sign up for an upcoming enrollment event, read more about the program's admission requirements, learn how long it takes to get a master's in data science, or apply online.

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