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Georgia Institute of Technology is working on expansion plans for its affordable online master’s degree program in computer science, even though the program isn’t growing at the rate it first anticipated.
“We will start another program,” Georgia Tech President G. P. Peterson said during a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed. “We’re very pleased with the success of the program, and we’re looking to expand it into other areas.”
The program was an early pioneer in using courses built on the model of massive open online courses to award credit. Amid the hype about MOOCs and their lackluster completion rates, this was one of a handful of projects that many have been watching (and maybe fearing as competition) -- and the institute priced it aggressively. Online students pay $170 a credit hour, compared to $561 for in-state students in the face-to-face program. Together, the institute’s strong reputation, the low price point of the program and the potential to enroll many more students than can fit in a physical classroom presented a promising model.
Today, more than two years after launch, the program has seen its first students graduate. Administrators and faculty members at the institute describe it as a success. Students find it challenging but rewarding. Does it matter, then, if the program is not enrolling as many students or generating as much revenue as the institute thought it might three years ago?
“I couldn’t be happier with where we are,” said Charles L. Isbell Jr., a senior associate dean and professor in the College of Computing. “When I say that the program is successful, I mean it by the financial measures -- we’ve got tons of students -- but to me the big success is we’ve been able to take a bunch of people who are already clearly qualified and the vast majority of whom would never have been able to get an advanced degree from a great place because they were not mobile. Now they can.”
Under the contract terms agreed to in 2013, Georgia Tech and online education provider Udacity planned to quickly grow the program in its first three years. According to projections for the 2015-16 academic year, the program would surpass 13,000 total full-standing degree-seeking students and generate more than $19 million in tuition and fees, leaving a profit of about $4.7 million to be split 60-40.
Those projections have proved overly optimistic. The program has not been a “big revenue stream,” Peterson said. With 3,358 students, the program is a “positive cash flow at this point” and the institute is “beyond break even,” but he expressed doubt that the program will reach the 10,000-student mark. Administrators in the College of Computing floated the 10,000-student figure as a best-case scenario back when the program was announced.
Isbell, however, said the institute is tracking enrollments by looking at the total number of courses students take. On average, students take 1.5 courses during the fall and spring and one course in the summer. According to those numbers, he said, enrollment is where the institute expects it to be.
In any case, enrollment appears to be trending up. The institute recently received its 10,000th application to the program, and the number of applications for the next admission cycle is up about 50 percent, Isbell said.
The institute did not share specific information about the program’s finances, but Isbell indicated that the fixed costs of running the program are due to drop. Course development has been a major expense -- Peterson said the institute spends about $350,000 to create each course -- but with 20 courses in its inventory and another seven or eight lined up for this fall, the institute will soon have “more than enough” to satisfy student demands, Isbell said.
“Since all of those things are behind us, the revenue we get from tuition covers our variable costs and the small fixed costs that we have by producing two courses a year instead of 12,” Isbell said. “We are certainly at the point where we are self-sustaining.”
AT&T subsidized the program’s launch with a $2 million investment, then later made an additional $1.9 million commitment. The company has received a return on its investment. AT&T offers a tuition assistance program, and its employees made up more than 20 percent of the 2,359 applicants to join the first cohort. About five employees are among the program’s first 20 or so graduates, who finished the program in December.
“Our business relies more and more on computer software as we transition from a telephone company to a mobile- and software-centric business,” an AT&T spokesperson said in an email. “We need more software engineers, network engineers and data scientists. … Through this program we will help ensure a great pipeline for these roles and others going forward. AT&T will tap into the program as training ground as well for internal employees.”
The one thing holding the program back from quickly growing its enrollment may be challenge of growing its support staff, Isbell said. The program isn’t yet pushing up against its limit, but there are questions “on the horizon” if it continues to grow at the same rate, he said.
“The biggest problem that we have is that as you get more students, you need more TAs, more people who are going to grade, more people who are going to be advisers,” Isbell said. “Luckily because we’re at the stage of self-sustainability, we know we’re going to grow. … It’s not about whether we can handle 3,000, 10,000 or 20,000; it’s about how quickly we can get [there].”
Once the first applications for the online program arrived, Georgia Tech was surprised by how the demographics differed from the applications to the face-to-face program. The institute’s face-to-face cohorts tend to have more men than women and international students than U.S. citizens or residents. Applications to the online program, however, came overwhelmingly from students based in the U.S. (80 percent). The gender gap was even larger, with nearly nine out of 10 applications coming from men.
The number of international applicants is gradually rising, but the institute is exploring ways to make the program more appealing to students scattered around the world. Isbell said the institute is looking at partnering with universities and companies abroad to make sure students can take advantage of local resources. Peterson suggested that might come in the form of 20 employees of the same company working their way through the program together as a cohort.
“It’s important to feel like you’re not alone,” Isbell said. He said the fact that students are organizing themselves into communities on Facebook, Google+, Reddit and other platforms is another sign of the program’s success.
The institute isn’t yet offering any specifics on how the program’s model will be adapted to other disciplines. Peterson said the institute is considering fields such as cybersecurity, data analytics and supply chain engineering -- areas “where we have significant expertise.”