The $7,000 MA shaking up graduate education

Leaders say the program's quality rivals that of its residential program

The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) is revolutionizing low-cost education with its $7,000 online master's degree in computer science, Kevin Carey writes for the New York Times' "The Upshot." 

Before Georgia Tech launched the degree in 2014, it already had a prestigious residential master's program in place. But the college sought a way to transfer that program into a high-quality online degree at the lowest possible cost: just $510 for a three-credit class.

The residential program enrolls about 300 students, most of whom are international. The online program, meanwhile, has about 4,000 students, mostly from the United States.

Carey acknowledges that there is often a fear with online programs that quality will suffer. However, online learning has proven to be even more effective than face-to-face learning, according to Charles Isbell, a senior associate dean at the College of Computing who helped lead the initiative.

Isbell found that the engagement levels were significantly higher among the thousands of online students.

"I spend more time helping them with assignments online than I ever do on campus," he says. "The experience for the students and for me is much richer online."

Joshua Goodman and Amanda Pallais of Harvard University, along with Julia Melkers of Georgia Tech, studied the online master's degree to determine whether the program attracted students who otherwise would have attended alternate institutions or wouldn't have attended graduate school at all. 

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The program aimed to keep enrollment low in its first year, so applicants were ranked by their undergraduate GPA, with an admission cutoff of 3.26. That resulted in a 500-student yield. The researchers compared students who just missed the cutoff with those barely above it, and used a national college enrollment database to find what happened to the rejected students.

Only about 10% of students who didn't make the cut chose a different program, while the overwhelming majority simply chose not to pursue a master's degree anywhere.

According to Carey, the explanation lies in student demographics: Students in the residential program tend to be younger and recent recipients of a bachelor's degree, while students in the online program tend to be older and have work experience. Students with jobs particularly benefited from the flexibility and cost of Georgia Tech's program, Carey writes (Carey, "The Upshot," New York Times, 9/28). 

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