Georgia Tech’s pioneering online master’s degree in computer science reveals a large—and unmet—demand for advanced education. Will other schools follow suit?
When the Georgia Institute of Technology teamed up with Udacity to launch an all-online master’s program in computer science (OMS CS) in 2013, organizers knew they were doing something new and possibly radical: offering a complete graduate degree from a U.S. News top-10 program for the rock-bottom price of $7,000—a fraction of what other high-ranking universities charge for their online degrees.
Only after students began enrolling in OMS CS did researchers discover another unprecedented element of this massive online course. As economist Joshua Goodman of Harvard University tells Prism, he and his co-investigators found “large demand among mid-career [professionals], particularly mid-career Americans . . . for high-quality continuing education.” Indeed, demand is so robust that the program appears capable of boosting the overall production of computer science degrees in this country.
Whether the new credential can fortify experienced professionals against the widespread threat of replacement by younger and cheaper workers remains an open question. For the thousands who have enrolled so far, however, the answer clearly is yes.
Untapped Talent Pool
Zvi Galil, dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, anticipated his brainchild would attract some mid-career professionals. “The surprise,” he says, “was the extent” of OMS CS’s appeal. Also astonishing has been the age difference between online students—33 years old, on average, with some in their 40s and 50s—and their on-campus counterparts, who average 22 years of age. The groups differ in another striking way. Nearly three quarters of the online students are Americans, with 26 percent international. In the much smaller on-campus program, 87 percent of students hail from overseas, most from India and China.
The divergence may reflect differences in motivations. For international students who “pay a huge amount” (over $30,000 for out-of-state tuition plus living expenses) to come to Atlanta, the “number-one goal is not the master’s degree, [but to] get into the U.S.,” Galil explains, noting that student visas are not granted for online programs. “If they could get in [otherwise], not all of them would pursue a master’s.” Studying in America has long been a key route into the U.S. labor market, particularly in the information technology fields, for foreign nationals, who can “explore opportunities” through Optional Practical Training and other programs, writes University of Michigan economist John Bound in a 2014 National Bureau of Economic Research paper. Indeed, nearly three quarters of Silicon Valley’s computer and math workers between the ages of 25 and 44 are foreign born.
OMS CS doesn’t disrupt that status quo. Rather, by providing low-cost, high-quality degree options for busy, mid-career professionals, it “may open opportunities for populations who would not otherwise pursue education,” write Goodman, Julia Melkers of Georgia Tech, and Harvard’s Amanda Pallais in an October NBER working paper entitled “Can Online Delivery Increase Access To Education?” The researchers calculate that Georgia Tech’s online program alone could increase annual production of computer science master’s degrees by 7 percent. Already, 277 people have earned the OMS CS degree, with 308 scheduled to graduate in April and “possibly 1,000” will have finished by December, Galil estimates.
Georgia Tech isn’t the only top-tier program exploring relatively inexpensive online advanced training for mid-career professionals. In September, Bruce Cameron, director of the System Architecture Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, launched an online certificate program called Architecture and Systems Engineering: Models and Methods to Manage Complex Systems that draws on research from MIT and insights into product development and complex-system engineering. Intended for professionals who seek added skills, a chance to get up to speed on new models and trends, and the knowledge to make better R&D decisions, the $2,200 four-course program can be applied to industries ranging from autos to aircraft. The majority of students have a technical background in supply chains, model-based engineering, or project management. Coursework can be completed in four to five hours a week and is “very discussion-heavy,” says Cameron, noting that “some of the best learning for me happened with my peers.” Some 90 percent of the 1,500 who signed up for the first course plan to take all four.
In offering a degree, Georgia Tech faced the challenge of ensuring that its online venture not harm the school’s reputation for rigor. Unlike traditional massive, open, online courses, or MOOCs, OMS CS maintains the same rigorous admission requirements as its on-campus program, which accepts only 12 percent of applicants. However it uses a “new paradigm” to evaluate applicants, says Galil. Instead of “admission by rejection”—turning down large numbers of people fully capable of succeeding—OMS CS is not constrained by physical classroom space and thus can admit all qualified candidates, or 60 percent of applicants. While that’s a “terrible” selectivity rate for top-rated brick-and-mortar universities, Galil acknowledges, coursework and exam grades indicate that both online and on-campus students are “roughly the same in performance.”
Nor does Georgia Tech hold students to different standards. “Our commitment is to have a degree with the same difficulty, the same projects, the same exams” as the on-campus program, says Galil. The “very tough” curriculum requires 30 credit hours and offers specializations in computing systems, interactive intelligence, machine learning, and computational perception and robotics. Students interact with one another as well as their instructors and teaching assistants on course-related social media. Because they “come from real-world computing,” mid-career professionals bring experiences into discussions that often make the online courses “even richer” than those taught live, Galil says, citing the example of physicians who share ideas in the health IT course and teachers weighing in on educational technology.
Georgia Tech also tackled the economics head on. Though master’s programs “are cash cows” on most campuses, “we decided that the money is not the first issue,” explains Galil. Instead, the quest for “accessibility through affordability” began with a September 2012 visit from MOOC pioneer Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, who suggested joining forces to develop a $1,000 master’s degree. Galil, who is “pretty good with numbers, especially with a dollar sign,” knew “intuitively” that it would take at least $4,000 to cover the considerable expenses of creating high-quality online courses. They ended up with $6,000. A multi-million dollar investment from AT&T, hundreds of whose workers have enrolled in the program, proved “crucial” at the outset. Today, with over 4,500 people from across the nation and dozens of countries currently enrolled, the program is in the black because of scale and even provides a “modest revenue.” says Galil.
The high-quality, low-cost model has proven so successful that Georgia Tech’s school of industrial and systems engineering and colleges of business and computing have joined forces to present a $10,000 interdisciplinary online master’s degree in data analytics, starting this fall. Meanwhile, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has recently announced the iMBA, an all-online master’s of business administration that costs a relatively economical $22,000.
Ease of access and affordability prove major draws for professionals unwilling or unable to commute to campus. Using technology similar to that used in MOOCs now offered by dozens of universities through organizations including edX, Coursera, and Udacity, OMS CS lets students do coursework at their own pace anywhere with Internet access—including on army maneuvers in the Himalayas, as a photo Galil received from one Indian student reveals. Equally important, the program’s low cost encourages people to “take a risk and try it out,” adds Goodman. “If [that first course] works, you keep going. If it doesn’t, you haven’t lost nearly as much” as signing up for a “full-blown semester or a year at a traditional program.”
That was the hook for David Rostcheck, a mid-career Texas software architect who has moved into the growing adjacent field of data science and travels a lot for business. OMS CS, he says, “really pushed me to just go ahead and apply, because even if reimbursement was not guaranteed, it was affordable.” Needing “spatial and temporal flexibility,” Rostcheck considered several online programs, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign online MS in Data Science offered with Coursera, but deemed it “three times as expensive and not as mature” as Georgia Tech’s. Now in his second semester, he finds the “interaction through the message boards and homework feedback to be sufficient, but I have met other learners who were horrified by the idea.” Ultimately, he says, the model’s success “depends greatly on the student’s individual learning style, study skills, and motivation.”
Knowing she wouldn’t have to spend “a huge amount” on OMS CS made Genevieve Hayes, a Ph.D. statistician and actuary in Melbourne, Australia, “more inclined to take that risk” on a program halfway across the globe. Like Rostcheck, she seeks to learn the computer techniques used in the emerging field of data science. But as manager of the analytical and actuarial team of the Victorian Managed Insurance Authority, “I didn’t want to have to quit my job for several years to pursue a degree full time on campus, and I also didn’t really like the idea of working a full day and then going off to lectures at a nearby university for two to three more hours after that.” After considering on-campus programs near her job as well as others online, Hayes chose OMS CS for its course offerings.
Hayes is glad she did. She likes not having to “waste any time travelling to and from a university campus,” and gives high marks for the quality of instruction and guidance. That includes taking a class this semester from “one of the best instructors I have had in my entire educational career and [who] could probably teach a lot of lecturers who teach face-to-face classes a thing or two.” Since they can’t meet in person, she says, many instructors “go out of their way to spend as much time as possible” interacting with students in online discussion forums, “to the point where by the end of each semester I often feel as though I know these people better than people I have actually met in the flesh.” That’s in stark contrast to her undergraduate experience, where she “used to sit with pretty much the same people in all of my classes and barely spoke to anyone other than my friends and instructors.” Because everyone is studying solo, there are no cliques and “people seem to be way more open to conversing with each other,” says Hayes.
Rostcheck and Hayes both undertook OMS CS to advance career in the credential-heavy field of data science. Both say their studies have already helped them in their current jobs and that their employers are supportive. But how effectively can an additional online degree propel or protect the careers of computer workers in their 30s and beyond?
Experience in other online programs suggests they bring benefits. Writing in a recent issue of IEEE Spectrum, Robert Ubell, vice dean emeritus of online learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, reports that “for students who receive their diplomas at the most selective schools, the distinction between online and on campus vanishes entirely.” Many prominent institutions, including NYU, the University of Michigan, Stanford, and Georgia Tech, don’t indicate whether a degree was earned via electronic or classroom studies, he notes, so “an engineering student who completes her master’s degree online through one of these programs will have the same chances finding a job, getting a raise, or being promoted as she would had she earned her degree on campus.” Data from NYU’s latest online graduating class of engineers, for example, show that nearly three quarters received a promotion or a raise after earning their degree, and all were employed six months after graduation.
The picture is nowhere near as rosy for mid-career engineers and computer scientists faced with younger, cheaper competition for their jobs. “The great unexamined question about engineering labor markets is how to make engineers more durable and resilient,” argues Ronil Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University and a professional engineer who researches STEM labor markets. How do engineers ensure they aren’t laid off or quickly find a good quality job if they are? he asks, noting that “in engineering especially, age discrimination is rampant,” beginning in the 30s. Employers, he contends, “will replace incumbent engineers with cheaper ones if it drives up the stock price.” Many tech firms have done just that.
Unfortunately, additional training won’t change that calculus. “Going back to school, say for a master’s, will NOT help the older American worker, even if he had been stale in skill set,” underscores Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California, Davis. “After that master’s, he still will be OLD” and therefore cost more in salary and health benefits than a beginner. Matloff scoffs at the notion that new grads’ fresh skills are what make them attractive to employers. “They are taught it by old guys like me,” he says—and by displaced workers who often must train the new hires taking their jobs.
It will be several years before Goodman and his colleagues expect to have meaningful data on OMS CS alumni’s career outcomes. What is clear, however, is that Georgia Tech’s low-cost, high-quality model has opened new academic opportunities for U.S. professionals—and a potentially huge new market for online learning.
By Beryl Lieff Benderly
Beryl Lieff Benderly is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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