2016 Rankings: Top 10 Online Master’s Programs in GIS

January 21, 2016 at 1:17 pm  •  Posted in Education, Geography by  •  33 Comments

Based on comments, the majority of readers are most interested in online graduate programs and several new players have emerged just in the past year. So, for my 2016 rankings, I’ve decided to focus on online Master’s degree programs in GIS/Spatial. To keep the task manageable I will not include any Certificate programs, only programs offering graduate degrees.

As I’ve cautioned in previous posts (see 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 rankings), the programs I consider to be the very best may not be the best for you. Graduate education is an individual decision; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. That said, I’ve ranked the programs according to my perception of quality and relevance for students wanting to pursue a Spatial Career.

  1. University of Southern California: The Spatial Sciences Institute at USC has taken a commanding lead in creating an innovative graduate program designed to train the next generation of professional spatial data scientists. In addition to their Master of Science in Geographic Information Science and Technology, they are now offering a Master of Science degree in Spatial Informatics, a Master’s in Public Health with a GeoHealth focus and a Ph.D. in Population, Health and Place. Their programs are online with a short residential component. For now, this is the place to be for online spatial education.
  2. Penn State: The Geography Department at Penn State is one of the world’s best and their online GIS program is the most established and probably the most prolific in terms of producing graduates. They have a huge number of course options and a variety of emphasis areas. I worry they’re still a bit stuck in the older, ESRI-driven GIS generation 1.0 world but there’s no disputing their expertise in GIS and online education.
  3. Johns Hopkins: Although Johns Hopkins doesn’t have a geography department they have a long history of excellence in Regional Science, which is essentially quantitative economic geography. I’ve heard from students who have participated in the program and they give it very high marks. In addition, graduates benefit from strong brand recognition and a solid cohort of professional/adjunct instructors living and working in the Washington DC area where GIS jobs are plentiful.
  4. North Carolina State: The Center for Geospatial Analytics has pulled together a strong interdisciplinary cohort of research and teaching faculty to offer a Master’s in Geospatial Science and Technology. The curriculum appears to be quite rigorous and the University’s location is likely to facilitate post-graduate job opportunities in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, a great place to pursue a career in technology.
  5. Kentucky: One of four new offerings that have emerged in the past year, Kentucky’s program is called “New Maps Plus”. This is a strangely whimsical name for a serious graduate degree. Kentucky’s Geography Department has become one of the best thanks to Professor Matthew Zook‘s innovative leadership. You can expect to learn some really cool web programming and visualization techniques that should leave you well-equipped to build web applications and a career in GIS. On the downside, you will also be subjected to 2 classes in Social Theory where you’ll have to endure an annoyingly obscure and inane literature. This is great stuff if you want to be an academic sociologist, not so useful if you want to be an applied geography/GIS person.
  6. Wisconsin: Another new program with a very exciting looking curriculum and offered from one of the best geography departments in the world. I like the looks of everything about this program except for the size of the teaching faculty. It’s not clear to me who will be doing the bulk of the teaching; in fact, there may be only one or two instructors? This seems inadequate. I look forward to seeing the faculty list lengthen after which I would likely improve Wisconsin’s position on this list.
  7. Washington: The focus on Washington’s new program is sustainability which is a cool word, sort of like holistic, but I’m not really sure what it actually means if you’re looking through a GIS lens. It’s probably a very good program and worthy of investigation if you’re looking for an environmental career with GIS in your toolkit. But, if you’re more interested in programming, visualization and spatial analysis I think you could do better elsewhere. Also note there’s some requirements to show up in person which may make this less attractive for those not living on the west coast of the U.S.
  8. Arizona: With a solid geography department, this could be an excellent program. But, Arizona doesn’t dazzle me with GIS/Spatial expertise, that prize would go to their in-state rival, Arizona State and Luc Anselin’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning (no online GIS programs I’m aware of at ASU). That said, the University of Arizona is an outstanding university and their program may far exceed my perception and expectations. Definitely worth a look but probably less cutting edge than some others on this list, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong.
  9. Kent State: I’m seeing advertisements for Kent State’s new online program everywhere so they’re certainly doing a good job of promoting via Google AdWords. And, it looks like the program is geared toward use of GIS within Environmental Geography. This is cool and could be ideal for some. But, I probably wouldn’t want to be an early adopter here. If you are choosing from among one of the newest programs go for Kentucky or Wisconsin as I expect them to outperform Kent State in the long run.
  10. Northern Arizona: If it were me I’d want to move to Flagstaff and emerge myself in the beautiful surroundings along with the graduate program as it’s offered both online and in a traditional residential format. This could be a good option for those inclined to the environmental side of geography and GIS but it’s a bit difficult to tell how current the faculty might be technologically. I would be worried about suffering through courses where you only learn how to push buttons in ArcGIS and don’t actually learn how to write code for the web.

Other programs worth investigating (in alphabetical order):

Well, there you have it! I hope this provides some direction and insight for those of you shopping for an online GIS graduate degree. I would have liked to include tuition information but for many programs it’s very difficult to figure out actual costs. It’s not clear how in-state/out-of-state tuition comes into play nor how additional fees might impact total program cost in some cases. You’ll have to investigate on your own. Obviously cost is a huge consideration so as I learn more I’ll try to keep you posted. Thanks for reading!



  1. John Ward / January 21, 2016 at 1:43 pm / Reply

    When I worked in higher education publishing we had a publishing partnership with Ersi when ArcGIS was being released, and the department at USC was heavily involved. I remember those professors doing some really interesting research and being very easy to work with.

    • John Ward / January 21, 2016 at 1:44 pm / Reply

      Justin T, you have your blog time set to Eastern. Gotta rep the Mountain Standard Time, my man.

      • Justin / January 21, 2016 at 8:08 pm / Reply

        Fixed (I think). Thanks, John!

        • John Ward / January 21, 2016 at 8:19 pm / Reply

          Yep, it appears correct now.

  2. Pingback: Top 10 Online Master’s Programs in GIS | SoCalGIS.org

  3. Chad Rowe / January 27, 2016 at 1:55 pm / Reply

    Hello Justin,
    I have just recently come across your site and absolutely love it. I am a recent graduate, (12/15) from Mississippi College with a BS in Homeland Security W/ a 3.14 GPA. I am 42 an want to pursue a career with the federal government with either the State Department, DIA, CIA,NSA, or the NGA. I spent five years in the Navy as well. My question is what would be the best Geo-spatial Intelligence program for me considering my passion being intelligence and my specific career path?
    Would a Geo spatial Information Technology Master in Applied Science be ok?? I have really looked at Delta State’s MIS GIT Program.
    I would greatly appreciate any advice you may have.
    Thank you very kindly for your time.


    Justin I wrote this in a comment section on your 2015 article. I found this article and wanted to copy and paste it to make sure I was able to get a hold of you. I read the article and once again love the insight. However, I did not seeing anything specific for Geo-spatial Intelligence. Forgive my ignorance if I over looked something. I am still very new in this field.
    I am looking to start grad school this Fall and do not know anything really about the field. Is there in thing I could study to better my chances of getting into grad school? Something that I could put into my letter of purpose to make me more attractive of a candidate?

    Once again thank your very much

    • Justin / January 27, 2016 at 3:40 pm / Reply

      Hi Chad,
      Glad you found me and glad to hear you like what you see. There are online programs in Geospatial Intelligence that you might consider. USC (Southern California) and Penn State have Geospatial Intelligence offerings that may be of interest. Also in DC Metro there is a Master’s program offered at George Mason that looks very good. Here’s a link to explore: http://cgeoint.gmu.edu/
      If you want to work for a federal agency then, of course, DC is the place to be … for school, internships, etc.
      Hope this is helpful.
      Best wishes,

  4. Ian Muehlenhaus / January 28, 2016 at 9:52 am / Reply

    Hi Justin,

    Thanks for you kind words about our program at UW-Madison beginning in Fall 2016.

    Just to clarify about the number of instructors we will have:

    We offer three courses per semester. Three of our faculty have developed the courses and will be involved in their instruction during the first iteration.

    We are in the process of hiring additional GIS educators to act as the day-to-day instructors for our courses with input and constant consultation from the faculty creators. The hiring process will be completed this spring. We’re keeping the program small during the first iteration — capping full-time students at 30 — to make sure students get the best, most personalized experience possible. In sum, our students will be taught by highly skilled, personable instructors with renowned faculty also being regularly involved in the courses.

    We’re super excited to kick this program off, and I’m very happy that you think so highly of our program at this early juncture.

    I also want to say thanks for writing your great blog! I’m an avid reader.


    Ian Muehlenhaus
    Director of the M.S. in GIS and Web Map Programming at UW-Madison

    • Justin / January 28, 2016 at 12:56 pm / Reply

      Hi Ian!
      Thanks for clarifying the instructor situation – I’m sure this is a big help to potential students. Good luck with your first year! I hope it’s a great success. Also, thank you for your kind words .. and for reading!

  5. Chad Rowe / February 1, 2016 at 2:03 pm / Reply


    Thank you so very much for your response to my questions. You gave me some very useful information. I had already looked at Penn State, simply because of their name and reputation in the educational industry. Another question for you is, if I decide or have a better opportunity with the civilian side of business what area would you recommend to concentrate in??

    I have heard that with a degree in GIS or GIT there are many great options out there. I was leaning and thinking about the oil and gas industry, even in the downturn it is in. It will not graduate until December of 2017, so that gives some time for the industry to rebound, which I know it will eventually. Just was curious and would love your thoughts on the subject.

    Once again Justin thinks for responding and the great work you do and information you put out on your blog. I am also looking at Pueblo, CO as a future residing place. Loved your blog on the city.



  6. Anthony Robinson / February 9, 2016 at 2:09 pm / Reply

    We’re happy at Penn State to answer anyone’s questions regarding our program foci and costs. We’re quite far from “GIS 1.0” and have blazed the trail on areas like Lidar, UAVs, our award winning Open Web Mapping class and many other topics. We’re also among the only options who publish the vast majority of our course content as Open Educational Resources. In addition, we launched the first Massive Open Online Courses in GIS/Geodesign/GEOINT and continue to invest a tremendous amount in the instructional design talent that helps deliver our programs to ensure student success.

    We’re extremely proud that we are always able to find tons of alumni who are happy to talk about our programs to anyone who might be interested – we are always eager to support that conversation rather than rest on our web materials alone or the stuff I might say as Director.

    Tuition for our programs costs considerably less than several of our competitors (including your #1) and considerably more than others. We publish that info here: http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/tuition-and-financial-aid

    Anyone with questions about our programs is welcome to hit us up at info@gis.psu.edu or check our website at http://www.pennstategis.com.


    Anthony Robinson
    Director, Online Geospatial Education Programs
    Penn State University

    • Justin / February 10, 2016 at 8:14 am / Reply

      Hi Anthony,
      Thanks for the information. I’m sure this is a big help to prospective students.
      Sorry if you found my GIS 1.0 characterization undeserved. Could you comment on the technologies taught at Penn State? How much of the curriculum is based on ESRI software vs Open Source?
      Thanks for commenting!

      • Anthony Robinson / February 10, 2016 at 2:21 pm / Reply

        We’re quite varied now across our curriculum. In addition to what might be the expected Esri stuff, we use CartoDB, Mapbox, SOCET SET, OpenLayers, PostGIS, Pix4D, and plenty of other bits and pieces. One thing that’s tough about this kind of education, and what we spend a ton of effort on, is to constantly update/modify/revise what we offer to stay ahead of the curve.

        At the same time, we are not designing software training classes – there are plenty of non-University options out there for learning only about software. We are coupling together the core competencies in our field with relevant technological solutions to tackle spatial problems. So that’s why I also think a key element of innovation in this space is to focus time and energy on distance learning itself. We have a team of 7 learning designers who are experts in pedagogy and educational technology to advance us in that dimension. Every class is the product of a collaboration between a learning designer and expert faculty member. That model seems to work really well.



        • Justin / February 10, 2016 at 2:23 pm / Reply

          Thanks, Anthony!

  7. Chelsea / February 10, 2016 at 4:32 pm / Reply

    Hey Justin,

    I am current a student at Georgia Tech studying in their GIS Master’s Program, MSGIST. This program is a few years old and within the City & Regional Planning Program under the college of Architecture and definitely more planning focused; however, because of Georgia Tech’s Center for GIS and the school’s reputation, I think it will become a very good program. The planning program is ranked top 5, so hopefully their GIS program follows behind.

    As an earth/atmospheric science undergrad, I am trying to incorporate that into my studies at a planning focused school, I was curious if you might have some tips for cover letters and such.

    Thanks so much!

    • Justin / February 11, 2016 at 9:09 am / Reply

      Hi Chelsea,
      Thanks for sharing your impressions of the Georgia Tech program. I’m not sure I understand your question re cover letters. Are you asking about job applications? Grad school? Please clarify.

  8. Dale / February 17, 2016 at 1:45 am / Reply

    Hi Justin,

    I contacted the USC and they told me that the Master of Science degree in Spatial Informatics is an on-campus program.(http://spatial.usc.edu/index.php/m-s-in-spatial-informatics/)

    • Justin / February 21, 2016 at 6:55 pm / Reply

      Hi Dale – thanks for clarifying!

  9. Shruti Dabas / February 20, 2016 at 11:18 am / Reply

    Hey Justin,

    I wanted to ask if you know of any GIS masters program that starts in winters. Or is everything in fall only.


    • Justin / February 21, 2016 at 7:03 pm / Reply

      Hi Shruti,
      I don’t know. This would vary by program so you should check with programs of interest. Good luck!
      Best wishes,

    • Anthony Robinson / March 3, 2016 at 8:25 am / Reply

      Hi Shruti,

      We have three intake periods for the MGIS program at Penn State each year. We also offer five class sessions throughout the year, so students can choose whichever time is best for themselves. MGIS students begin in Fall, Spring, and Summer sessions, and because up to 15 credits earned in our Certificate programs can transfer into the MGIS degree, you can actually take a class or two while you complete your application to the MGIS degree program and those credits will count toward your degree progress if you are accepted.

      We’re happy to answer any questions you may have at info@gis.psu.edu – drop us a line!


      Anthony Robinson

  10. Shruti / February 28, 2016 at 12:13 am / Reply


    You are my only savior when it comes to questions on my mind. Please be patient.

    I wanted to ask how much do you recommend changing my field from what im doing to GIS now. I know its late for me. I am 25, I did under grad in geography. From where i grew interest in it. However i didnt pursue cause it wasnt that known / recognized in India then.

    I still have it in me as a desire. Would you recommend, starting a career in it now is a waste of thought and wont turn out as good as its in my mind.

    One answer from you will silent me forever (Jane Austen).


    • Justin / February 28, 2016 at 10:46 am / Reply

      Hi Shruti,
      If you’re only 25 years old, it’s certainly not too late or a “waste of thought” to change career direction. But you don’t need to dive off a cliff either. Learn as much as you can without quitting your current job or making any major changes. Take small steps, gather information and look for bridges that will allow you to continue moving toward the good stuff.
      Best wishes,

  11. Shruti / April 22, 2016 at 3:31 pm / Reply

    Hey Justin,

    Me again.. I wanted a personal viewpoint of yours. How much do you think is average income a fresh graduate will get without prior experience. :/

    Thanks alot for your help to many of us.

    • Justin / April 27, 2016 at 8:28 am / Reply

      Hi Shruti,
      There are too many factors to consider to give you an average. Salaries vary tremendously by location, industry, role, etc. And every individual brings their own profile to the bargaining table. If you want to maximize the salary of your first job learn to write code.
      Best wishes,

  12. Michelle / May 11, 2016 at 8:24 am / Reply

    Hi Justin,
    I am curious why the University of Denver’s online MSGISc program is not on your list? It is a great program with very knowledgeable faculty.

    • Justin / May 24, 2016 at 1:32 pm / Reply

      Hi Michelle,
      Glad to hear DU offers a great program from your perspective. I’m aware of the program and, to be honest, I don’t recall why it didn’t make the cut on my list. I’ll have to give it a second look for next year. Thanks for the comment!
      Best wishes,

  13. Dave / July 16, 2016 at 6:14 am / Reply

    Hello Justin,
    I have an interest in the GIS field, mostly it’s applications with archaeologicall, environmental, or natural resources. I have no experience or prior knowledge of GIS analysis and was wondering if you could recommend a program for someone completely new to the field. I have a Bachelor’s degree in History. I was also looking at GIS certificates to start and then obtaining a Master’s. Thank you.

    • Justin / July 18, 2016 at 1:36 pm / Reply

      Hi Dave,
      Any of the recommended programs on this page or on one of my other ranking pages should be able to accommodate you. Many graduate students, including myself, discovered geography after completing a bachelors degree in a separate field.
      Best wishes,

  14. Kevin / August 1, 2016 at 9:53 am / Reply

    Hi Justin,

    I’m wondering if you could give me any recent/new thoughts on NC state’s online GIST masters program since the time of your original 2016 blog post. I have been wanting to advance my education for some time now and have an a strong interest in GIS. My career is in natural resources and have a bachelors in the field. I have been tossing between Penn State, John Hopkins, and NC State. USC is just way too much in cost. The reason why I’m leaning towards NC State is because their GIST program is housed under their College of Natural Resources. So, I feel I could have better connections / familiarity with their curriculum. But, I’m not really sure if that should be the exact reason for NC State. Just wondering if you have any new insight on the NC State online GIST program.



  15. Kevin / August 1, 2016 at 10:12 am / Reply


    To give you a better understanding of my interest within GIS. I would like to pursue a GIS career as a Geospatial Analyst specializing in remote sensing imagery.


  16. Adwait / October 7, 2016 at 2:24 am / Reply

    Dear Justin,

    Can i pursue Phd. after Ms gis online ?


    • Justin / October 7, 2016 at 9:45 am / Reply

      Hi Adwait,

      Yes, it’s possible to pursue a PhD after completing an online Master’s. But, it’s not the right way to go. The online Master’s won’t be nearly as helpful as a research oriented Master’s degree with thesis in a traditional residential program where you can work directly with research professors.

      Best wishes,

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