|Online Degree Programs May Change
the Future of Higher Education
The more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States offer
many different educational experiences.
For hundreds of years, young people have come to these schools to learn
new things and find direction in life. But now, with the help of
technology, the way knowledge passes from teachers to their students is
In February 2016, the Babson Survey Research Group reported that 28
percent of all U.S. college students took at least one class over the
internet. The research group, part of Babson College in Massachusetts,
studies all levels of education across the country.
Yet, having students take a few online classes during their college
years is not the only change technology is driving.
Many U.S. colleges and universities now offer full degree programs
online. This opens up all kinds of possibilities for students around the
One such student, Leanne from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is using an
online degree program to meet her needs. The 30-year-old asked VOA not
to share her last name as she has yet to complete her studies.
In 2012, Leanne earned a bachelor’s degree in
nursing through a traditional study program at Thomas Jefferson
University in Philadelphia. She then started working as a nurse in the
Washington, DC area.
After a few years, Leanne decided she wanted to earn a master’s degree
to help further her career in medicine. However, she did not want to
move to another city to continue her education, as can often be the case
for students. Her job and her husband were in Washington, and she only
wanted to study part-time. So, Leanne decided to look for an online
"There were a lot of good, appealing things about doing it online -- it
allowed me to work full-time and fit the schoolwork into my schedule,
which often made it a lot more financially feasible. And … the nurse
practitioner program, they have nationally gone … towards being online,
to the point where it’s actually very difficult to find a program that
was in person."
In 2014, Leanne began taking nursing classes through the online master’s
degree program at DC’s George Washington University. The program
provides medical training videos through her home computer. She also is
involved in discussion groups, takes tests, and submits projects online.
Leanne says much of her studies are self-directed. But students also
must physically visit the university at least four times during their
three-year program for in-person testing.
Leanne says her program appeals to a lot of people with full-time jobs.
And, George Washington University is not alone in its efforts to spread
The communications company AT&T gave the Georgia Institute of Technology
$4 million to create an online degree program in 2014. This led to an
online master’s degree program in computer science.
And in the past few years, the program has become a true success story,
says Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard
University. Goodman studied the effects of the online program. Harvard’s
Kennedy School of Government published his findings last September.
Goodman says online degree programs have faced two major barriers.
First, it has often been lesser-known, lower-quality, or for-profit
universities that have offered online programs. Second, well-known,
high-quality schools charged the same price for online and in-person
programs. This often led to students choosing the traditional programs.
But the Georgia Tech program may have solved these problems, Goodman
says. Many experts consider the university to have one of the best
computer science master’s degree programs in the country. Also, Georgia
Tech began offering the online program at less than one sixth of the
cost of the traditional program.
The school’s in-person program only has room for about 300 students. The
online program had about 1,700 new students at the start of the school
Yet Goodman argues it is not just the quality or the price that make
Georgia Tech’s online program so successful. The average age of students
trying to get into the traditional program is about 24. The average age
of the online students is 34. These are people in the middle of their
careers, Goodman notes. They are not free to drop everything and spend a
few years studying instead of working.
Goodman says before the Georgia Tech program, many of these people had
no other good choices for furthering their education.
"The folks who applied for this program … did not have other educational
options that they would do if they didn’t get into this program. … What
we found is that if they got into this program, they went, they did this
degree. And if they didn’t get in, almost none of them went to another
university. So it seems like this program is creating educational
opportunities for mid-career people that would not have otherwise
Online degree programs seem to not only help students with
non-traditional needs. In some cases, the appeal of the programs has
helped the schools themselves. This is especially important considering
many colleges and universities have struggled financially in recent
Simmons College is a small, private college in Boston, Massachusetts.
For several years, Simmons accepted more graduate students than
undergraduates. In 2012, the school created a plan to start offering two
of its most popular master’s degree programs online. The two are in
nursing and social work.
Last year, the college collected about $45 million in student payments
for those programs. This year the programs are expected to bring in
about $55.9 million. This is about $3 million more than all the
in-person graduate programs Simmons offers, combined.
Suzanne Murphy is the head of the online programs at Simmons. She says
the reason those programs appeal to so many students is the quality.
“You measure success in student outcomes,” Murphy said. “‘How are the
students doing?’ ‘How are they progressing through the programs?’ Things
like that. And the programs that we put online are the same programs
that we have on the ground.”
Leanne, Goodman and Murphy all agree there are many other ways to
improve online degree programs in general. Next week, we will look at
some of the problems such programs still face.