LOS ANGELES — Georgia Institute of Technology is about to take a step that could set off a broad disruption in higher education: It's offering a new master's degree in computer science, delivered through a series of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, for $6,600.
The school's traditional on-campus computer science master's degree costs about $45,000 in tuition alone for out-of-state students (the majority) and $21,000 for Georgia residents. But in a few years, Georgia Tech believes that thousands of students from all over the world will enroll in the new program.
The $6,600 master's degree marks an attempt to realize the tantalizing promise of the MOOC movement: a great education, scaled up to the point where it can be delivered for a rock-bottom price. Until now, the nation's top universities have adopted a polite but distant approach toward MOOCs. The likes of Yale, Harvard, and Stanford have put many of their classes online for anyone to take, and for free. But there is no degree to be had, even for those who ace the courses. Education writer and consultant Tony Bates recently noted that until top institutions begin putting a diploma behind their MOOCs, "we have to believe that they think that this is a second class form of education suitable only for the unwashed masses."
While many universities now offer online degree programs (which don't have the massive numbers of students as MOOCs), they are almost always priced at the level of their traditional on-campus programs. George Washington University's online MBA Healthcare degree, for example, costs the same $1,485 per unit (52.5 units gets you to the finish line) as the standard program. The reasons for this are many, but perhaps the most important is that universities are terrified of debasing the value of their diplomas.
Drop the price of the online degree, the logic goes, and you could have a Napster-like moment sweeping college campuses. Revenues spiral down as degree programs are forced to compete on tuition. That's a terrifying prospect for universities, which have depended on steadily rising tuition — growing at more than twice the rate of inflation — to cover costs.
Georgia Tech's new program, though, throws a monkey wrench into the system by reordering the competitive landscape. U.S. News & World Report ranks the computer science department among the nation's top 10. The new degree — which is a partnership with MOOC pioneer Udacity — is intended to carry the same weight and prestige as the one it awards students in its regular on-campus program.
John Backus, the chief executive of Atlantic Ventures, which invests in a number of higher-education companies, asks: "Why would you go to XYZ college, pay three to four times the amount, when you can get a master's degree more cheaply and from a better school?"
Across town from Georgia Tech, Emory University, with a less prestigious computer science department, offers a master's degree for around $40,000 in tuition. Plenty of other mid-tier schools also could find themselves struggling to justify their high sticker price. A year of tuition at Boston University's graduate school costs in excess of $43,000; Washington University in St. Louis is $44,000. Living expenses and other fees can drive those figures up even more. At most programs, Georgia Tech's included, a few master's students get teaching or research fellowships, but financial aid opportunities are usually hard to come by. Many master's students finance their tuition by taking on debt.
Even Zvi Galil, the head of Georgia Tech's school of computing who is launching the new program, is wary. "This is uncharted territory," he says. But, he warns, if Georgia Tech doesn't do this, someone else might come along and do it first — grabbing the fame, the students and the revenue. "There is a revolution. I want to lead it, not follow it," he says.
As Georgia Tech moves ahead, one of the first casualties may be the university's own on-campus computer science master's program. Charging an out-of-state student $45,000 to show up to class on time might be a tough sell when the same degree can be had for a fraction of the cost.
Galil guesses that some students might be willing to pay extra for the in-person contact or the chance to connect with corporate recruiters visiting campus. But he assumes that many others won't. The on-campus program could shrink, he says, but adds, "So what?"
Kahn is a professor at the University of Southern California and director of the Future of Journalism at Annenberg Innovation Lab.