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How Georgia Tech is Bringing Prestige to Online Graduate Degrees

By Cait Etherington
December 13, 2017

A key challenge faced by online programs has been their perceived prestige. Indeed, in some professions lingering concerns about online degrees being subpar, continues to push such programs to the sideline (as an example, see eLearningInside News‘ recent article on the continued marginalized of both online and blended law degrees). But at least in some professions, online degrees are beginning to gain considerable prestige, and computer science is one such field.

In 2014, Georgia Tech’s graduate program in computer science, which is consistently ranked among the very best computer science schools in the nation, launched a 100% online degree. The Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) was developed in partnership with Udacity and AT&T and costs about $7,000, which is less than one-sixth of the $45,000 out-of-state students pay for Georgia Tech’s in-person computer science master’s degree. Tuition and admissions criteria were established to attract a much larger number of students than the in-person program but without compromising the integrity of the degree. Most importantly, the OMSCS is not labeled an “online” degree but is considered on par with Georgia Tech’s on-campus programs. A recently released study on the program suggests that the program is not only making graduate-level education in computer science more accessible to a large number of adult learners but also bringing new prestige to online graduate degrees in the process.

Can Online Delivery Increase Access to Education?

A recently released study by Joshua Goodman (Harvard University), Julia Melkers (Georgia Tech), and Amanda Pallais (Harvard University), “Can Online Delivery Increase Access to Education?,” highlights the early success of the Georgia Tech experiment, and part of the program’s success pivots on the fact that the program is reaching a demographic that would otherwise not pursue a graduate-level degree program in computer science. As the researchers explain, “There is nearly no overlap between the applicant pools to [the on-campus and online] programs, with few individuals applying to both. The average in-person applicant is a 24-year old non-American recently out of college, whereas the average online applicant is a 34-year old mid-career American. Eighty percent of those admitted to the online program accept those offers and enroll, suggesting few find compelling alternative educational options. Large demand from a mid-career population uninterested in its in-person equivalent and a high matriculation rate both suggest the online program is drawing in students who would not otherwise enroll elsewhere.”

There are other key differences between Georgia Tech’s on-campus and online programs. Most notably, the online applicants tend to be from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and to have more diverse academic backgrounds (e.g., engineering, math or physical sciences). The study also found some differences in attrition rates, with online students more likely to fail to complete their program than their on-campus counterparts. However, the study further found that, “Comparisons of student achievement across the online and in-person formats suggests that OMSCS students finish their courses with at least as much knowledge as their in-person counterparts.”

Combining Educational Equity with Prestige

The success of the Georgia Tech program rests on more than its demonstrated ability to make graduate-level education more accessible and affordable to a demographic who may have previously lacked access to higher education. When launched, OMSCS was described as the first “large-scale program offered by a highly-ranked department, priced much lower than its in-person equivalent and culminating in a prestigious graduate degree.” Indeed, this was true. Previously, the programs available were generally either offered by highly-ranked institutions but at a high cost or by lower-ranked institutions. In both cases, this meant that students were taking a risk (either by going deep into debt or risking investing less in a degree that may carry little weight with employers).

Since Georgia Tech’s success with OMSCS, a growing number of high-ranked institutions and graduate programs have embraced online education. As Goodman, Melkers and Pallais observe, “Yale University is currently developing a fully online version of its Master of Medical Science degree for physician assistants” and “In the fall of 2016, over a dozen highly ranked universities affiliated with the EdX consortium started by Harvard and MIT announced plans to offer micro-master’s degrees. Such degrees will be open to any student willing to pay a total of roughly $1,000 for exam proctoring at the end of each course and will consist of between one-quarter and one-half of the courses in a traditional version of each degree.” Some examples of these degrees include a supply chain management program at MIT, an artificial intelligence program at Columbia University, and a social work at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.  As the authors of the Georgia Tech study conclude, “That more highly-ranked institutions appear to be entering the market for inexpensive online degrees suggests our results may be increasingly relevant to the future of online education.”