While a new report puts the average debt load of new college grads at a stomach-churning $35,200, the Georgia Institute of Technology is rolling out an alternative program experts say offers a beacon of hope for both students and employers: A three-year master’s degree in computer science that can be earned entirely online — and that will cost less than $7,000.
The school is partnering with Udacity, a for-profit provider of MOOC (massive open online course) education, and AT&T, which is contributing $2 million and will provide connectivity tools and services. “We believe this program can establish corporate acceptance of high-quality and 100 percent online degrees as being on par with degrees received in traditional on-campus settings,” a statement from the school says.
This isn’t academia’s first foray into offerings that promise some combination of low cost and high tech education, of course, but it’s the first one that industry observers say has the potential to shake up the status quo. “Georgia Tech’s announcement probably is a game changer that will have other top-tier universities that offer degrees in computer science scrambling to compete,” says Asa Sphar, vice president of recruitment and profiling at tech recruiting company CSI Executive Search, LLC.
The price is a key factor in that. “MOOCs are open and free—unless you want to attach any type of assessment, credentialing or professional certification to them. Certification, assessment and authentication of college level learning is not free,” blogger Vicky Phillips writes on GetEducated.com.
According to research by GetEducated.com, the average cost of an online computer science master’s degree program is just under $25,000. Georgia Tech undercuts that average by more than two-thirds.
“It’s big step forward here” for a school of Georgia Tech’s caliber to offer not just courses but an entire graduate degree online, says John Challenger, CEO of executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Online education has a reputation — some would argue a self-inflicted one — as an inferior substitute for brick-and-mortar scholarship. Georgia Tech is a good candidate to pioneer an online degree program that could challenge those assumptions about online education, experts say. Its academic bona fides — #5 ranking on U.S. News & World Report’s list of top graduate engineering programs — give the initiative credibility.
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“There is a stigma, and I think there will always be some degree of stigma to online degree programs, given the questionable quality standards that have existed,” Sphar says. “Assuming they can still continue to demonstrate the quality of their outcomes, you’re going to see the stigma lessen over time.”
“I think there was some distrust about how to validate the quality of what students have learned,” Challenger says.
Then there’s the issue of cost. Just by virtue of being cheap, an inexpensive degree can carry a stigma of being inferior. Texas governor Rick Perry floated the idea in 2011 of offering a bachelor’s degree at state universities for $10,000, which the Chronicle of Higher Education referred to as a “stripped-down degree.”
“I can’t imagine we could deliver the same quality of education that we currently do here at the University of Texas at such a price point,” Dean P. Neikirk, chair of the Faculty Council at the University of Texas at Austin, told the publication
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“This has the makings of a dual-degree system. Most troubling, there are no assurances that low income and minority students will not be tracked into this lesser option,” Luis Fuentes-Rohwer, a law professor at Indiana University wrote in a New York Times op-ed series about the Texas proposal.
In addition to Perry’s $10,000-degree push, a program was recently launched by Southern New Hampshire University called College for America that has no classes, no credits and a price tag of $2,500 a year. Both rely in part or wholly, respectively, on online course work. (Perry’s proposal also advocated for a greater reliance on community college programs.) And both nonprofit and for-profit organizations are hopping onto the MOOC bandwagon, although most of the focus so far has been on individual courses, not fully-fledged degree programs.
The big problem is measurement and accountability: How do you prove that these far-flung students are actually learning anything of value? William G. Bowen, founder of a nonprofit that studies high tech in higher education, sounded a cautionary note when he told the New York Times earlier this year, “There’s great promise here, great potential, but we need more careful research, and there has not been sufficient attention to that.”
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Georgia Tech says it picked the field of computer science to address this issue. “Computer science problems have a right or wrong answer and lend themselves to objective, rather than subjective, assessment and evaluation,” the program’s FAQ section explains.
In high-tech fields, hiring is increasingly data-driven, with a focus on skills acquired rather than academic pedigree, according to Andrew Hally, vice president of product and marketing at recruiting software company Bullhorn. Employers looking to fill high-tech jobs can’t afford to be picky about subjective criteria, Hally says. “There’s such a shortage of candidates, especially in computer science, computer engineering. That’s the number one problem recruiters identify when we survey them,” he says.
In 2010, Bill Gates predicted that technology would facilitate driving down the cost of a college education to $2,000 within five years. We’re not quite there yet, obviously. But Georgia Tech is pushing things in that direction. The university is opening enrollment for the program to matriculating students in the fall of 2014.