The 10 Best Online Masters in Geographic Information Systems

Geographic information systems record, operate, analyze, manage, and show geographic data. An increased reliance on digital mapping, has opened a universe of opportunities and industries that need people experienced in this field. That includes disaster relief, resource management, fossil fuel mining, conservation, civil planning, and much more. GIS professionals often work as GIS Analysts, GIS Technicians, or Cartographers. affordability, time until degree, number of specializations, and academic prestige. Most GIS professionals work their way up from technicians and draftsmen, with an in-depth understanding of databases, analysis and mapping, then build specialized skills like software development, programming, and remote sensing. Eventually GIS professionals become project managers.

As a GIS professional you can expect to tackle important projects and play crucial roles in planning pipelines, navigating ships, fighting wildfires, look at the world in new ways and make it more navigable in so many different ways. You might help figure out how far a toxic spill could reach, fight climate change, improve transit or delivery efficiency, or get aid to stranded natural disaster victims. In this list, we’ll focus on how to achieve a Master’s in GIS from the comfort of your home. The schools on this list were compiled based on affordability, time until degree, number of specializations, and academic prestige.

1) Northeastern University

Northeastern University is a private research university that was founded in 1898 in Boston. It offers undergraduate majors in 65 different departments, and over 125 graduate level programs. Recent estimates place its student population at just under 25,000 students. NU offers undergraduate and graduate programming throughout Boston, in several satellite campuses and of course through its robust online division. Northeastern is known for helping students get funding they need to attend the school. It gave out $239 million in the 2015-16 year via grants and scholarship assistance. Over 75% of its students receive some sort of financial aid. It’s also consistently highly ranked by a variety of sources. Forbes ranked Northeastern 35th in “The Top 100 Colleges Ranked By SAT Scores” in 2013. U.S. News & World Report has ranked the NU higher and higher between 1985 and 2017. Over those years the school climbed those rankings to the tune of 176th to 39th. It was also ranked 7th in 2017 among the “most innovative” schools section of USNR.

NU’s GIS Master’s program will prepare graduates to enter a number of industries and disciplines, including geography, archeology, urban planning and natural resources management. Students will learn advanced skills in project management, system implementation, database design and implementation. These skills make up the core of the program, and students are also given technical expertise and higher-level skills in raster-based GIS, geospatial information, and GIS modeling. The theoretical and practical will be combined with hands-on GIS training that prepares graduates to exercise the skills they’ve learned in the area of their choosing. Students will gain significant experience with ESRI software (industry leaders for GIS), Internet GIS, remote sensing, mathematical and computational GIS. They’ll analyze and expand their cartographic knowledge and principles, study economic, legal and ethical ramifications of GIS and overall increase their decision making in the practical application of GIS.

2)Penn State University

Penn State World Campus began in 1998, quickly becoming an integral part of the ubiquitous university. The program was founded on over a decade of experimentation and study at the American Centre for Study of Distance Education in the College of Education by Professor Michael G Moore. Moore created and taught some of the world’s first online courses to students in Mexico, Europe and America, and had great success. Over 13,000 people attend the World Campus. It offers 120 online undergraduate and graduate degree and certificate programs, partnering with Penn State’s gargantuan stable of academic programming. Penn State’s history with distance learning goes back long before the advent of the Internet. In 1892 the school began allowing farmers to attend its classes through correspondence. When students graduate from the Penn State World Campus, they’re invited to a Penn State graduation ceremony, and get the exact same degree that on-campus students earn.

Penn State World Campuses’ GIS program takes approximately 50 weeks and 35 credits to complete. Graduates can expect promising careers in fields like environmental resource management, urban/regional planning, local government, surveying and cartography, facilities management, transportation planning among many others. The 50 weeks are broken into 5 10-week terms. Its curriculum is made up of over 30 fully online courses covering important areas of GIS and geospatial intelligence. Courses are tailored to give students the most cutting edge information in conservation GIS, LIDAR technology, location intelligence, open source mapping, among many others. Students can also choose between focusing on Geospatial Intelligence (analyze diverse data to manage natural or cultural assets, enforce laws and help plan and execute military operations or Geodesign (combine gathering information and design).

3) University of Central Arkansas

UCA is a public research university that was founded in 1907. Just under 11,500 students attend the school, with close to 2,000 postgraduate students. It boasts a faculty/student ratio of 17:1. UCA offers six colleges: the College of Fine Arts and Communication, the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, the College of Business, the College of Health and Behavioral Sciences, the College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Education. It also created the Norbert O. Scheduler Honors College, one of the first honors colleges in America, offering smaller classes, intense study, and more effective student/teacher relationships. It has gone on to national recognition and prominence. In 2006, U.S. News & World Report ranked UCA 61st in the South for academic excellence. In 2009, USNR ranked UCA 54th in Master’s Universities South on its America’s Best Colleges list. UCA was also ranked 23rd in the Top Public Schools in Master’s Universities South for that year.

UCA’s Master of Geographic Information Systems is based on their online Executive MBA programs, merging GIS with a lucrative, advanced business education. It’s suggested that students who enter this major have taken some form of GIS coursework previously, or work in the field. UCA’s MGIS also offers a thesis and non-thesis option. In the thesis option, students take 24 hours of required courses 6 hours of their thesis, whereas the non-thesis option requires 30 hours of coursework. Students learn technical issues of GIS, advanced reading and research skills, digital image processing, mapping fundamentals and spatial analysis/modeling. Students can focus on GIS electives like its health applications, planning and public administration and database design and development. This program ties for quickest to completion, and is the most affordable on this list.

4) University of Southern California

USC is California’s oldest research university and was established in 1880. It’s an extremely popular, iconic, sprawling school with 42,000 students. USC benefits from huge endowments, including over $4.7 billion in 2015, and had a $4.2 billion budget that same year. It constantly is ranks among the best 25 universities in the country. USC graduates have founded iconic businesses like Lucasfilm, Myspace,, Intuit, Qualcomm, Box, Tinder, and Riot Games. USC is known for its investments, business development and career connections. Of all the undergraduate institutions in the world, USC has made the fourth largest number of billionaires. It’s constantly on the cutting edge of technological development, and was recognized last year for having the world’s most powerful quantum computer. Prospective students will find its administration extremely eager and communicative in helping them begin online courses.

USC offers four different GIS programs: a Masters of Science in Geographic Information Science and Technology, a Certificate in GIST, a Certificate in Geospatial Intelligence and a Certificate in Geospatial Leadership. They’re offered through USC’s Spatial Sciences Institute (SSI), and focuses on spatial thinking, analysis, modeling and visualization. These programs are based in intense research and collaboration to prepare students of numerous backgrounds to begin many different occupations reliant on geospatial technologies. Greater demands and challenges in climate change, human health and sustainability, urbanization and many other fields will require a larger influx of GIS professionals. These programs can be completed in 16-20 months, and can open a wide variety of opportunities in the field. Anyone working (or who would like to) in environmental science, sustainability, urbanization or city planning, should seriously consider this program.

5)University of Denver

This four-year, independent private school is the first to be established in the Rocky Mountains (1864). DU offers programs and degrees, in law, business, music, social work, education, and much, much more. DU is known for its can-do, pioneering background. It grew alongside the city of Denver, and grew precipitously during the post-World War II migration to Colorado. There are now over 11,000 students, more than half of which are graduate students (6,100), leading to an environment that wholeheartedly embraces graduate education. DU was ranked 86th among all public and private national universities in the U.S. News & World Report 2015-2016 rankings. As of 2017, it’s been a top 100 university in the USNR rankings for almost a decade. DU’s online programs are offered through its University College. This college of professional and continuing studies is caters to the needs of working adults. It started in 1938, and its online courses began in 1996.

DU’s Master of Science in Geographic Information Sciences degree (MSGISc) is the second most affordable program on this list. Students typically start earning this degree at University College, receive a graduate certificate, then seek admission to the Department of Geography and the Environment to finish their master’s. DU’s GIS training focuses on the newest technological skills and their real-world applications. The training runs the gamut from common business applications (like best locations for a new store) to environmental protection/damage analysis, crime mapping and much more. Students will learn plan, enact, and support a GIS project with remote sensing, internet mapping, or digital image processing.

6) North Carolina State University

Also known as NCSU and NC State, this public research university was founded in 1887 in Raleigh, North Carolina. It forms a Research Triangle with Duke University and The University of North Carolina. It has 34,000 students, over 9,000 of which are graduate students. NCSU has many strengths, and is known for its engineering, statistics, agriculture, life sciences, textiles and design programs. It offers over 100 bachelor’s degrees, 104 master’s degrees, and 61 doctoral degrees. It’s known as a selective university, and in 2015 its graduate school accepted just under a quarter of the students who applied. In 2017, U.S. News & World Report ranked NC State 92nd among all national universities, tied for 38th of the public universities in the U.S., and 62nd as a ”best value” school. The Academic Ranking of World Universities put NC State in the 201-300 tier among 500 world universities in 2016 and 32nd best Engineering university worldwide in 2015. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance placed NC State 11th in its 2016 ranking of best value public colleges in America.

NCSU’s Master’s of Geospatial Information Science and Technology is offered to a few on-campus students each year, but is primarily taught online. The school vows that the expectations and quality of instruction is identical in both iterations. This program can be completed on average in two years. It combines theory, practical training, and client-based instruction to give students a comprehensive, well-rounded GIS education that can apply to myriad occupations within the field. This program allows students to select one of four different elective clusters in order to focus their GIS education in a direction more suited to their professional goals. These include Professional Skills, Environmental Science/Natural Resource, Engineering, and Statistics. The school notes that the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency needs 7,000 analysts a year, and the U.S. Department of Labor puts the Geospatial Technology sector among the 14th highest growth industries that need new professionals. Graduates of this program also receive the Professional Science Master’s designation on their transcript, upon graduation a nationally recognized program that conveys the technical and professional skills you’ve received to employers.

7)Elmhurst College

Elmhurst is a private liberal arts college in Elmhurst, Illinois, which traces its roots back to 1871. It’s affiliated with the United Church of Christ. It offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees to under 3,500 students through 26 undergrad programs, 15 certificates and 17 master’s programs. It also offers 15 preprofessional programs, 63 separate majors, and a student option to create a major. Its intimate environment boasts a 13:1 student to faculty ratio. Elmhurst has been rising in the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Value rankings, placing #9 in the Midwest category in 2016, and #4 in 2017. Elmhurst accepts just under 70% of applicants. The vast majority of current students rank the effort Elmhurst’s professors put into their classes very highly. 95% of its students reported employment two years after graduation, and Elmhurst has a 74% graduation rate (in comparison with a national average of 47%).

Elmhurst offers a M.S. and a graduate certificate in Geographic Information Systems. Its program is aimed at giving students the skills they need to deal with comprehensive geospatial issues through theoretical skills and concrete projects that apply those skills. The program was developed in conjunction with the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM), based on the definitions of the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Geospatial Technologies Center of Excellence (GeoTech Center). This program can be completed in 30 semester hours, and encompasses 10 classes. Sample classes and requirements include Principles of Geodatabases, Spatial Analysis and Web Mapping, Remote Sensing and Imagery Interpretation, a Graduate Internship and an E-Portfolio & Research Seminar. It can be completed in two years, and is offered in eight week sessions entirely online. Graduates of this program are qualified to work as Land Surveyors, City/Regional Planners, GIS Technicians, Conservation Scientists, Engineers and much more.

8) University of Washington

The University of Washington was founded in 1861 in Seattle, Washington. It’s one of the oldest colleges on the West Coast, and has gone one to build other campuses in Tacoma and Bothell. UW is a member of the Association of American Universities, and has over 46,000 students. It offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in 140 departments including Education, Engineering, Law, Medicine, Oceanography, Pharmacy, Social Work and many others. Its award-winning alumni have won seven Nobel Prize laureates, two Pulitzer Prize winners, and the school has produced winners of most prestigious awards in arts and science. U.S. News & World Report ranked UW 16th among public universities in its 2016 rankings. Both its programs and the school itself consistently rank in the top 100 in rankings from USNR, Washington Monthly, Times Higher Education World University Rankings, World Reputation Rankings and QS World University Rankings, both in America and worldwide.

UW’s Master’s of GIS requires nine courses and 45 credits. The curriculum is focused on sustainability management, giving its graduates the ability to tackle multi-faceted sustainable system problems. Students will analyze social, economic and environmental elements that go into these problems in order to solve them, using GIS software. This software, and sustainable system analysis will be paired with advanced skills in spatial thinking, problem solving and decision making. Sample classes include Coastal GIS, GIS Programming, Principles of GIS Mapping and GIS Problem Solving. You’ll learn to deal with problems through a geode sign workflow, design databases, and present your plans in a variety of map styles including 2D, 3D and 4D (spatial-temporal). This program is the third most affordable on the list and culminates in a Capstone project in which students tackle actual environmental problems in real communities. The program’s graduates speak extremely highly of the program’s advisor, Robert Aguirre and his connections within the industry.

9) Northern Arizona University

NAU is a public research university with three dozen satellite campuses in Arizona. It’s been accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, and serves roughly 30,000 students. The school was founded on 9/11/1899, and grew from one professor holding two dictionaries bound in sheepskin to a major institution offering 99 online accredited degree programs. NAU serves over 30,000 students. It was the first public university to give students a competency-based online degree program in which they earned credit for experience. It began offering a Personalized Learning program in 2013, allowing students to subscribe to its online programming for six months, and complete as many courses as they can over that time period. It costs $3,000 for six months, and federal financial aid is available for the program. NAU has been ranked highly by Forbes, Washington Monthly and Times Higher Education (which ranked NAU in the top 500 universities worldwide in 2016).

NAU’s M.S. in Applied Geospatial Sciences offers thesis and non-thesis route degree routes. Students can opt for a research thesis or do an applied practical project instead, both of which are worth 6 units. The latter will be an internship experience, and students will need to write and present their project. It gives students emphasis areas in variants of Geospatial Technologies, Custom Geography, Planning, and Recreation. The program is for students looking for careers in land management, community, and environmental spatial systems. It requires 36 units to complete. It’s also available as part of NAU’s Accelerated Undergraduate/Graduate Plan, which allows undergraduates to work on their bachelor’s degree and master’s at the same time. This program takes on average two years to complete.

10) University of West Florida

Also known as UWF, this comprehensive research university is a member of the State University System of Florida. It was founded in Pensacola, Florida in 1963. Some of UWF’s many impressive rankings include a five time stint in Forbes’ “America’s Top Colleges” (2011, ’12, ’14, ’15 and ’16), 22nd on Best Masters Programs “50 Most Affordable Online Graduate Schools for Master’s Degrees” in 2015, and it’s been commended in many outlets as a military-friendly university. UWF offers 400 online course sections each semester and 28 completely online undergrad, graduate and certificate programs for students anywhere in the world. It also allows online students to apply for an out-of-state tuition waiver, lowering the cost of completing its programs online.

UWF offers three different GIS programs, a 24 credit hour/one year GIS certificate at the undergrad or graduate level (also includes traditional or archaeology track options), a 36 credit hour 2 year master’s degree in Public Administration with a GIS specialization to get students ready for GIS leadership positions and a 6 week GIS Training Academy created to build ArcGIS software skills quickly and efficiently. UWF prizes practical courses that convey advanced skills in geospatial science and business management with cutting edge information and methods. Students will learn about conservation GIS, emergency response and management, location intelligence for business, open-source mapping, and much more. Students will grow their computational modeling and management decision support skills. Graduates will be prepared to work as GIS developers, analysts and managers in fields like environmental resource management, urban and regional planning, emergency response management, local government and consulting. UWF’s program is completed with a two semester Capstone project under the guidance of a UWF course instructor or mentor. Students that are employed in a GIS position are welcome to use work they do professionally for this project.