A Top-Tier CS Degree for Engineers Everywhere

What happens when you're an up-and-coming engineer with limited budget for a grad degree? Or if you live outside the commute radius of a top-tier engineering school?   How are you going to get that prestigious degree that can open doors and help you take your career to the next level?

On the other side, whether you’re at MasterCard, AirBnB, AT&T or most any start up across the country looking for technical people, you’ve likely got a problem.  You cannot find enough qualified employees.  

By all counts, there is a current and projected shortage of Bachelors and Masters degree holders in high-growth technical areas, such as software development, mobile application development and data science. With educational institutions able to support only a finite number of students in traditional brick-and-mortar degree programs, the market for online education has ballooned to over $100B. However, tuition for an MS degree at a mainstream online university, such as University of Phoenix, is over $30,000 and at a top-brand university, such as Carnegie-Mellon, is $43,000 and up. This is not a recipe for filling the skills gap anytime soon.

As with nearly every aspect of modern life, though, disruption is underway – in this case, driven by Georgia Tech in partnership with AT&T and Udacity.

Educating Students Who Could Not Otherwise Earn the Degree

“There is currently a revolution in higher education. And we don’t want only to be part of it – we want to lead it,” says Zvi Galil, George P. Imlay Jr. Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech and Marconi Society Board Member.

That’s why Georgia Tech is the country’s first top-tier university to offer an online masters degree in computer science (OMSCS) that is equivalent in every way to an in-person degree – and that comes at a price tag reflecting the cost savings of online education. At $7,000, Georgia Tech is making its world-class MS much more accessible for qualified candidates around the world.

Since the degree is affordable and uses technology to make it available to anyone with a broadband connection, it gives nearly all of the applicants the opportunity to obtain a degree that they would not otherwise be able to get. An older cohort than the in-person student body, 75% of the OMSCS students are employed full-time and 94% work while enrolled. Though the students come from 100 countries, the 78% domestic / 22% international enrollment is the virtual reverse of Georgia Tech’s in-person campus population and reflects the appeal of the program to people who want to remain where they are while earning their degree.

The Economics of Partnership

It takes a village – and a lot of resources – to create an online experience that equals the quality of a traditional in-person education.

Georgia Tech partnered with Udacity to provide expertise in the art and business of online education. Serving over 4M students, Udacity is the brain trust for best practices in online learning and provided Georgia Tech with expertise in creating compelling content and student experiences.

Creating a great online course is like producing a movie – it requires content built for the medium, along with takes and re-takes to make it perfect. It costs $200,000 – $300,000 to develop an engaging and effective online course. In addition, there are the typical costs associated with a degree-program course, including instructor time and infrastructure.

Galil was determined that the OMSCS was the right strategic direction for Georgia Tech, but lacked the large endowment of a private university. He simultaneously moved the project through the approval process, including a Board of Regent’s approval, while seeking outside funding to support course development. Through relationships with AT&T and Udacity, he obtained funding to help Georgia Tech create the online courses much more quickly than they would have been able to otherwise.

What’s in it for AT&T? The company hires over 30,000 employees each year, including many from technical disciplines. 300 of its employees are in the program.  By supporting OMSCS, AT&T is increasing the supply of technical talent by making a world-class degree available to qualified applicants with a broadband connection.

Increasing the Supply of Technical Talent in the US

Today’s OMSCS program boasts 111 graduates and 4000 students that have over 700 advanced degrees between them. They work for social enterprises, start-ups and larger companies.

The most amazing result of all: the US alone will have 7% more MS degree holders in Computer Science each year as a result of the OMSCS program. With students in 100 countries, the program will help increase the world’s population of high caliber technical employees.

Where will the online revolution go from here? Only time will tell, but Galil is already thinking ahead to its applications for undergraduates. Georgia Tech is now piloting an online-only section of its popular “Intro to Computing” course for undergrads. Though the course will start small—enrollment is being limited to 50 students—it has the potential for big impact.

“What if we could leverage online education to shorten the time students spend on campus as undergraduates?” Galil said. “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, computing is the only professional category for which the number of jobs available each year is more than the number of graduates—and by a factor of two. In higher education, it’s our duty and mission to find innovative ways to address this national need. At Georgia Tech, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Learn more about Georgia Tech’s OMSCS degree:

Usable Knowledge: The Digital Bridge: A Model for How Online Education Can Increase Access to Higher Education

New York Times: An Online Education Breakthrough? A Master’s Degree for a Mere $7000

EduTech, Brisbane, Australia:  Improving Education Through Accessibility and Affordability

Harvard Computer Science Colloquium:  Online Master of Science in Computer Science, featuring Dr. Zvi Galil

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About the Author: Paula Reinman specializes in helping social impact organizations fulfill their missions through effective marketing and communications. You may follow Paula on Twitter at @preinman and at www.linkedin.com/in/paulareinman/.

This post originally appeared in the Marconi Society blog.

Photograph by Glenn Carstens-Peters