IN RECENT YEARS, THE EARLY PROMISES OF ONLINE EDUCATION have given way to disappointing experiences for students and institutions. Technological and access issues needed to be addressed, and there were valid concerns that the virtual classroom was no match for in-room learning and discussion. But a new research study co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Associate Professor Joshua Goodman suggests that at least one new model of online degree programs has done one thing right, successfully expanding the pool of people pursuing formal education. 

“Does Online Delivery Increase Access to Education?” is posted on the Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Papers website.  It is co-authored by Julia Melkers, associate professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy, and Amanda Pallais, Paul Sack Associate Professor of Political Economy and Social Studies in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS).

The research team examined Georgia Tech’s online Master of Science (M.S.) in Computer Science (OMS CS) program, which was the first educational model to combine the inexpensive nature of online education with a degree program from a highly ranked institution.

“The online degree costs about $7,000, less than one-sixth of the $45,000 out-of-state students pay for Georgia Tech’s in-person computer science master’s degree (MSCS). Program price and admissions criteria were set in part to attract a much larger number of students than the in-person program without compromising the quality of the degree,” the authors write. 

The analysis found that three-quarters of those accepted in the Georgia Tech online program enrolled in it, and also that online access did not decrease the number of students who enrolled in the more traditional in-person programs. 

“This model of online education thus has the potential to substantially increase the national stock of computer science human capital,” the authors argue. “Though it is too early to measure completion rates, 80 percent of OMS CS enrollees persist through at least the third semester, with nearly all withdrawals happening after the first semester and very few after the second. If such persistence rates correspond to completion rates, OMS CS will annually produce approximately 900 American computer science master’s degree recipients.” That equates to an eight percent national increase in these degrees.

As to the quality of the online education, the authors write that, “early comparisons of student achievement across the online and in-person formats suggests that OMSCS students finish their courses with at least as much knowledge as their in-person counterparts.” How that translates in the labor market is a question for future research.

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