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Higher Ed Shake Up
Online Degree Programs Poised for More Growth

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.

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  • Boritz

    I searched for ‘computer science degree’ expecting to be offered links that redirected but only came up with t-shirts. That would be one base to cover though on the way to 10,000 enrollment.

  • Fat_Man

    We need to change education requirements for occupational licensing. They should be strictly limited to the occupation. Anything that requires so many hours in a classroom or courses on material that is not directly relevant (e.g. most BA requirements) has to go.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    It seems clear to me that the students in online courses lack the same discipline that’s imposed on students in classic schooling. Which places specific demands of class attendance, work, and examinations, at specific times and places on students. The freedom that online courses give (in this case) is a detriment, and some other form of discipline is needed to replace classic model’s. Perhaps time limits with tuition reductions for swift completions. In any case, it seems a large number of people would like more schooling but lack the time, money, and physical location to attend.

    • J K Brown

      Why is the freedom a detriment? Learning should be continuous. If one steps back, the class attendance, examinations, rigid schedule were all requirements imposed because the transfer of the knowledge was limited by individual performances designed to deliver. Not unlike the theatre. Now, education is finally breaking free of the monopoly and enter the world exposed by film. Perform once, with many takes to get it right, be seen by hundreds, thousands, even after the original production is not only closed, but the actors are long deceased or wouldn’t deign to travel/live where those wanting/needing the knowledge are.

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