Scoffers and standpatters in the academic world have been proclaiming the demise of online degree programs for some time. But such rumors were always exaggerated. The latest evidence: Georgia Tech’s online master’s degree in computer science just graduated its first 20 students—each of whom paid less than 20 percent of the tuition that their peers who attended the traditional, in-person program paid. The Wall Street Journal reports:
The Georgia Tech online computer-science program is relatively massive: It has 2,789 students enrolled this semester, compared with 312 in the campus-based version. It’s on track to turn a profit by May, according to Charles Isbell Jr., senior associate dean at the College of Computing. It has a steady stream of more than 1,300 applicants for each new term. […]The low price point for the online master’s degree—just under $7,000, compared with more than $38,000 for the bricks-and-mortar version—has proven almost too much of a draw. Students who may have just dabbled in a few classes, without seeking to earn credit, are instead signing up for the full-degree program and may be dragging down retention rates. […][A Georgia Tech dean] is still thinking on a grand scale: “It wouldn’t surprise me if three years from now we’re talking about 10,000 students instead of 3,000 students,” he said. “This is sustainable and this is scalable.”
The Georgia Tech experience offers a number of important lessons:1. Online programs aren’t a slam dunk solution to higher education’s problems. The Journal describes a number of setbacks Georgia Tech experienced with its program, including high attrition and a slower-than-expected course completion rate. These programs are new—Georgia Tech’s started in 2013—and it will take time for institutions to figure out how to use them most effectively.2. Students can get sophisticated degrees this way—earning a graduate degree in computer science from a top 10 department is no small task—and they can earn these degrees at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs, which are overpriced thanks to federal subsidies and growing bureaucracies. Online learning will not merely be a way to “enhance” in-person higher education; for some students in some programs, at least, it is likely to be a sustainable alternative.3. The rewards, both for students who can access high quality education while saving on tuition and for the innovative institutions that use online education to tap into a global market, are big enough to justify the effort to make these kinds of programs work.Many academic insiders would like the public to believe that the traditional model of higher education is invulnerable to the disruption that has upended so many other industries. They’re wrong. Higher education has changed, is changing, and will change even more.