Get a Computer Science Degree for Just $7,000

A new offering from Georgia Tech could upend higher education and help address the IT talent gap.

Three years ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates predicted that technology and the Internet would bring the cost of a college education down to $2,000 by 2015. While we clearly are not there yet, one university is inching toward that goal by offering a low-cost online Master’s degree in computer science.

The Georgia Institute for Technology last week announced the launch of the first professional online Master of Science degree in computer science that can be earned completely through a massive open online course, or MOOC, format. The degree, which will be provided in collaboration with Udacity Inc. and AT&T, will take three years to complete at a cost of roughly $7,000.

Could this move help solve the IT talent crisis and mark a new era for higher education?

Randall Stephenson, chairman and CEO of AT&T, says yes. He said last week that Georgia Tech’s new online offering could serve as a blueprint for helping the United States address the shortage of people with STEM degrees and expand access to computer science for students around the world.

“Because of this collaboration, anyone with a broadband connection will have access to some of the finest computer science instruction in the world,” Stephenson said. “We believe that high-quality and 100 percent online degrees can be on par with degrees received in traditional on-campus settings.”

The jury is still out on whether online education can outgrow its reputation of being inferior to that of traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, as Stephenson suggests. But as referenced in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, when it comes to training students in IT fields, traditional schools may not be getting the job done either.

“It depends on what the online degree looks like and whether a course is developing the knowledge, skills and abilities that government actually needs,” said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service. “But that would apply just as much to a brick-and-mortar school as well.”

This form of affordable, online education may better serve the military veteran population as well, particularly as government and industry look to provide easy, low-cost ways for training service members who are transitioning into civilian jobs, particularly in IT fields.

Still, McManus argued that for the federal government, the current challenge is less about the actual IT talent shortage and more about the immediate challenge facing government: the ability to effectively compete with the private sector for the IT talent that is already out there. A report released last week by the Partnership and Booz Allen Hamilton provided 10 suggestions for federal agencies to make themselves more marketable to STEM talent.

“I think we immediately say that the pipeline is broken and we need to get more people into STEM fields,” McManus said. “The immediate need for government is how do we get the people that are out there and how do we brand ourselves as a place where you actually can do cool, meaningful and innovative work. I think that’s a big challenge for government right now.”