Pushing Back on My Idea That Low-Cost Online Master's Programs Are New

What is the story with master’s programs from Coursera and edX?

July 17, 2019

Last week, I wrote about 21 low-cost online master's degrees being offered in collaboration with edX and Coursera. I wondered why our community is not talking more about these programs. In a follow-up post, I speculated about how some universities have been able to drive down the prices for online master's programs, and the campus conversations that would allow this model to spread.

On Twitter, and in the comments, my posts got some pushback. The main objection is that I am only focusing on the universities offering low-cost master's in collaboration with edX and Coursera, while ignoring the existence of a much larger set of affordable online master's programs.

@4humanities tweeted, "There are lower cost fully online options than what you see on those two platforms. Take the first two degree examples, for instance, and you can easily find lower cost programs elsewhere," and provided the following links:

So are the $10,000 to $40,000 online master's degrees that universities are doing in partnership with Coursera and edX really something different? Are we not talking about these degree programs all that much because they are not all that newsworthy?

What seems different from my list of 21 online master's programs is the type of schools that are represented. The partner schools to Coursera and edX are research universities with global brands. A master's degree from these schools is a scarce commodity, highly valued in the marketplace.

Another differentiator, as far as I can tell, is that the online master's programs from my list are significantly more affordable than other degree programs that these schools offer.

Across higher education, institutions rely on master's programs to make their finances work. Unlike undergraduate programs, most schools do not practice tuition discounting for their master's. The amount of financial aid available for master's students is small compared to undergraduates.

Many schools rely on tuition from master's programs to make up for tuition discounting-driven losses in their undergraduate programs. There are now three times as many master's degrees conferred each year as there were in 1970. Today, for every five undergraduate degrees that universities award, two master's degrees are conferred.

What will happen if working professionals looking to get a master's degree decide that an online degree from an institution with a recognized global brand is preferable to a traditional master's from a regionally known university? How will the majority colleges and universities that are both dependent on the revenues from master's programs, and which are not considered "elite," survive when those tuition dollars start to migrate to a few well-known schools?

My list of 21 low-cost online master's programs from top universities should inspire all sorts of questions.

Why are they so inexpensive? In looking at the prices, it is hard to believe that these programs are kicking off much in the way of excess revenue. I would bet that they are priced pretty close to instructional costs. It seems as if these schools are following a mission of providing access, as opposed to revenue generation, and are designing these online programs around financial sustainability rather than income generation. But this could be wrong.

The other question is about quality. How good are these programs?

Low-cost degrees from non-brand-name programs may be quite excellent. The quality of a graduate program -- including an online program -- is dependent on the degree to which the educational model is relational as opposed to transactional. A relational educational model stresses intense interactions between well-supported educators and qualified and well-supported students.

Can a relational model of teaching and learning survive the shift to scale?

That is assuming, of course, that online programs from top universities that are offered in collaboration with Coursera and edX (and on their platforms) are built for scale. My guess is that these programs do not have a scarcity of space. That is, they can take as many qualified applicants as they can get. This eliminates the main bottleneck of elite universities, the mismatch between demand and supply.

The existence of low-cost master's degrees from what we think of as high-cost universities should be a big story. This seems to be something new and something different. Certainly something different from the low-cost online degree programs that are already in the marketplace.

How can we understand the quality of these Coursera and edX programs, as compared to existing low-cost online master's programs?

What should our measure of quality be? Are we thinking about the power of the degree in the employment market? Or are we looking to the quality of the learning experience?

How much risk do low-cost online master's programs from globally branded universities introduce to every other school that depends on master's programs to balance the books?

How much of an advantage do Coursera and edX have in relation to the other online program management players, as these platform companies can conceivably bring the same assets to university partnerships (funding, expertise) in addition to the enormous numbers of students (between 20 and 30 million) already on their platforms?

Who is looking to empirically answer these questions, and others, about the rise of the brand-name, low-cost online master's degree?



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