Online degree expands educational access for mid-career Americans

Online degree expands educational access for mid-career Americans
Georgia Tech’s online version of elite master’s degree in computer science fills gap in higher ed market

March 15, 2018—Online degree programs are growing in popularity, with 14 percent of all U.S. college students enrolled in online-only programs as of 2015. But do online programs simply substitute for in-person programs, or can they instead expand educational access to students who would not otherwise enroll? In a new research article for Education Next, Joshua Goodman of Harvard Kennedy School, Julia Melkers of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Amanda Pallais of Harvard University examine data from the Georgia Institute of Technology, which recently began offering a fully online version of its highly regarded Master’s degree in Computer Science, and find that online coursework can substantially increase overall educational attainment.

Because Georgia Tech’s online computer-science master’s degree, which enrolls nearly 1,700 new students each year, offers identical coursework to its in-person equivalent, but at a much lower cost and without geographical or scheduling constraints (students complete each course at their own pace over a semester), it provides a unique opportunity for researchers to compare a large-scale, fully online graduate program to an in-person alternative. Furthermore, the online program’s first-semester practice of using a GPA threshold to constrain the number of students accepted allowed the researchers to compare the academic trajectories of similarly achieving students who fell immediately on either side of the GPA threshold. Goodman et al., merged data from Georgia Tech with data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the National Student Clearinghouse to control for students’ background characteristics and track them over time, whether or not they enrolled at Georgia Tech.

Among the key findings:

Online and in-person degree programs serve distinct populations. Examining data for all applicants to the online program’s first six cohorts (spring 2014 to fall 2016) and for all applicants to four cohorts of the in-person program (fall 2013 to fall 2016), the researchers find nearly no overlap in the online and in-person applicant pools. The typical online program applicant is a 34-year old employed American while the typical in-person program applicant is a 24-year-old recent college graduate from India. Between spring 2014 and fall 2016, less than 0.2 percent of the nearly 18,000 applicants to either program applied to both programs.

Online program provides quality education to a broader range of students. The online program makes a prestigious graduate degree attainable for students who typically might not qualify for the in-person program based on their previous academic performance. Online applicants come from colleges that have a higher proportion of low-income students and a substantially lower six-year graduation rate. They are also much less likely than in-person applicants to have majored in computer science. But despite their somewhat weaker average level of preparation, online students slightly outperformed in-person students when Georgia Tech blindly graded final exams for online and in-person students taking the same course from the same instructor.

Online degree expands educational attainment. Access to the online program does not substitute for other educational options; rather, it substantially increases the number of students enrolling in postsecondary programs at all. Online applicants just above the GPA threshold used for admissions in the program’s first semester were 21 percentage points more likely to enroll in the Georgia Tech online program. Those just below the GPA threshold, and therefore denied admissions to Georgia Tech’s online program, were no more likely to enroll in other programs.

“These findings indicate that the higher education market has been failing to meet demand for mid-career online options,” say Goodman, Melkers, and Pallais. “For the vast majority of online students, the alternative is not an in-person degree program but rather no degree at all.”

The article will be available Tuesday, March 20 on and will appear in the Summer 2018 issue of Education Next, available in print on May 24, 2018.

About the Authors: Joshua Goodman is associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Julia Melkers is associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Amanda Pallais is the Paul Sack Associate Professor of Political Economy and Social Studies at Harvard University.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College