09/29/2014 09:26 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

Proving Grounds for a New Model for Higher Education


More than 20 million Americans are heading to campuses nationwide to commence the new academic year. They will be participating in a model of higher education that is under increasing strain.

Financially, there is the much-reported and growing mismatch between tuition, rising at a rate higher than inflation for the past 30 years, and students' challenged means of paying for it, as evidenced by the titanic volume of outstanding student debt. But another factor, less remarked on, is no less important: the decades-old model of a college or professional degree acquired in one's 20s, that equips one for a lifelong job, is an ever-poorer fit for the modern economy.

People switch jobs and careers more often -- even in a good economy. Also, as technology advances and the frontiers of understanding are pushed back, it is more frequently necessary to revisit and renew one's store of knowledge, both practical and conceptual. Consider too how a longer lifespan and recession-delayed retirement contribute to longer working lives, and the need for a model that provides for lifelong learning is evident.

The existing institutions of higher education do little to address that need -- evening classes, the occasional executive degree, a smattering of alumni auditing courses and a handful of correspondence degree programs at the same, increasingly unaffordable tuition as a residential degree. And this is a problem.

The advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), web-based, open access educational courses, has been touted as the solution to both problems, with free online classes taught by star professors available on-demand. However, MOOCs, as a group, have been characterized by low completion rates (typically less than 5 percent), doubts about the quality of learning outcomes and an uncertain reception by employers. And yet, MOOCs' promoters got one fundamental thing right: online learning, developed properly, can result in learning attainments fully the equal of in-person classes.

This critical insight was the genesis of the Georgia Institute of Technology's online Master of Science degree in Computer Science (OMSCS), the product of pioneering collaboration between Georgia Tech and Udacity, a for-profit educational organization, and AT&T, which contributed $2 million to help launch the program. AT&T is tapping into the program to train employees for transition to a mobile- and software-centric business. More than 230 AT&T students have enrolled to date since the pilot launched in spring of 2014. The company will also utilize this channel as a new source of talent acquisition going forward.

The program's classes are delivered using MOOC technology, but with a key difference: this is not a collection of online courses "based on" the Institute's courses. These are Georgia Tech courses, and would lead to a Tech degree. There would be no question among students, employers or other academic institutions as to the worth of OMSCS, because it would be the same Georgia Tech master's in Computer Science that is already recognized for its high quality and the accomplishment of its graduates. The tuition expense -- $6,600 -- is radically different from the $46,000 out-of-state tuition expense for an on-campus degree.

The OMSCS' low tuition costs and its flexible design made it accessible to students who, though highly qualified, would not have been able to take an on-campus MSCS degree. Some 1,268 students enrolled this fall, meaning OMSCS is already more than quadruple the size of our on-campus program in just its second full semester (summer was a shortened term).

Of these, 87 percent are American citizens and residents. They are, on average, 11 years older than on-campus MSCS students, attesting to the domestic demand for lifelong learning. Of those enrolled in the first semester, 18 percent have dropped out. Courses are as rigorous as the on-campus MSCS. These students declare themselves highly satisfied -- 93 percent would recommend the program, and expected enrollment for January is more than 2,000 students.

But the central innovation was not in the online delivery of the courses, nor in the fact that they lead to a complete degree. Rather, the key point is that the online nature of the degree is affirmed to be immaterial: the online classes are fully the equivalent of on-campus ones, in terms of both education and credentials, at a fraction of the cost. Having the coursework constitute a Georgia Tech master's degree is the only way we could have credibly put the Institute's reputation behind the rigor and quality of our online courses. But now that the point has been made, we expect the next wave of online higher education to include not only additional degrees offered online, but also individual online courses that are treated no differently from their on-campus equivalents. Indeed, students will be able to tailor courses of study to their individual needs. For example, they could begin with a few online courses, then transition to a year or two of on-campus courses before pursuing the last stretch of their degree program online so as to be able to combine it with work experience.

It will be these kinds of experiments -- discovering how affordable online education can best complement on-campus courses and degrees, and what mixes work best for different populations of students at different stages in their lives -- that will eventually reveal the paths to higher education's next model.

Zvi Galil is the John P. Imlay Jr. Chair and Dean at the Georgia Tech College of Computing