Growing landscape of online master's degrees

A New Wave of Online Master's Degrees

Online education is gearing up to transform the way we approach learning, and master's-degrees have been among the first to feel the effects. More and more universities are offering online versions of their master's programs, opening access to a wider population and sparking new questions about the overall affordability and costs of a master's education.

A lot of these programs are still in their fledgling stages, so their full impact in the higher education marketplace remains to be seen. Based on the sheer number of programs popping up around the country, however, the shift towards online-focused master's programs is only just beginning.

Georgia Tech online

A major player in the new online master's degree landscape is the Georgia Institute of Technology. In conjunction with Udacity, a provider of massive open online courses, Georgia Tech is offering a computer science program that will be delivered in a MOOC-based format. The university plans to enroll as many as 10,000 students in the program annually, and Georgia Tech will charge $6,600 for the degree, a much smaller price tag than the $45,000 students pay to attend its on-campus program. The tradeoff is that students attending the online program will miss out on some of the perks associated with the on-campus program, including faculty interaction and access to tutoring and other support services.

Georgia Tech's computer science program is one of the most highly rated in the country, and the school's willingness to offer a top-notch master's education for a fraction of the price of a traditional degree program is a potential game-changer in the national conversation about the rising costs of higher education. Some observers, however, are skeptical aso to whether the new endeavor will bring the financial returns Georgia Tech and Udacity anticipate.

While the financial boost of a $2 million donation from AT&T, like Georgia Tech has enjoyed, is a luxury other universities may not be able to replicate soon, observers in the education world will still be keeping a close eye on the experiment. Success may inspire other universities to follow in Georgia Tech's footprints.

"This is the first deliberate and thoughtful attempt to apply education technology to bringing instruction to scale," physics professor S. James Gates, a member of President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, told the New York Times. "It could be epoch-making. If it really works, it could begin the process of lowering the cost of education, and lowering barriers for millions of Americans."

Opening up to international students

In addition to potentially expanding access to master's-level education to more Americans, online-based programs like Georgia Tech's expand access for international students. By removing the obstacles of visa requirements and the considerable costs of relocating to a new country, online programs allow international students to absorb education from some of the U.S.'s most eminent universities, providing an opportunity that many would never otherwise have access to. In one example, which attracted a degree of media attention, a 15-year-old Mongolian boy named Battushig surprised instructors by earning a perfect score in a difficult MIT electronics course.

Other universities recognize the potential of a foreign audience eager for a U.S. education as well. The University of Southern California announced its law school would begin offering an online degree program in fall 2014 aimed at foreign students, who would be able to earn law degrees from their home countries. USC says its online law degree will be the second of its kind in the nation, following a similar program at Washington University in St. Louis.

American University in Washington, D.C. has similar hopes that its online master's degrees will help broaden the university's reach to an international audience, for the enrichment of the program and fellow students. The school's two new programs, a master's of arts in strategic communication and teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL), launched in January of 2014.

Polina Vinogradova, the AU linguist heading American University's new TEFL program, said that, with their online format, "We could attract the international community outside of the U.S. who would like to get this global perspective of English language education, rather than the U.S. perspective that we're providing [currently]."

Other contenders

Another entrant into the online master's degree landscape is the University of California at Berkeley, whose new Master of Information and Data Science degree made its debut in January 2014. The program may help remedy a current shortage of data scientists, whose services are needed now more than ever as the internet unleashes a never-ending stream of data that's left some organizations with little to no idea how to analyze or use to their benefit.

UC Berkeley's program aims to prepare graduates to assist businesses in identifying relevant information and determining how to maximize its value. Skills acquired in the program are meant to be applicable to a wide range of fields, from health care to retail to government to banking. The school also anticipates many of its applicants will come from outside of the U.S., though it also designed its online program for those already working as IT professionals who wish to study part-time and maintain their jobs.

No matter what your location or your fields of interest, the options available for online master's degrees are more plentiful now than ever before. If this wave of new online programs is successful, it's possible that more and more universities will join the fray and match their rivals' efforts with innovative, top-notch master's programs.


"Masters Degree is New Frontier of Study Online," New York Times, Tamar Lewin, August 18, 2013,


"The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator," New York Times, September 15, 2013,


"USC Law School to Offer Online Master's Program for Students Abroad," Los Angeles Times, Jason Song, October 22, 2013,


"AU Expands its Online Presence with Two New Graduate Degrees," InTheCapital, October 18, 2013,


"UC Berkeley Choosing Inaugural Class Pioneering Online MA Data Science," Xconomy, October 8, 2013,


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