The Digital Bridge

A model for how online education can increase access to higher education

October 17, 2016
illustration of hands over a laptop computer with image of graduate on the screen

We’ve been waiting for evidence that online education can fulfill its promise to reach underserved students and expand opportunity. A new working paper from Harvard University and Georgia Institute of Technology highlights one effective pathway to that goal.

Previous research has shown that most users of online education look fairly similar to the average college graduate — suggesting that digital learning isn’t yet the great educational equalizer it has the potential to be. But in a study of Georgia Tech’s hugely successful online master of science in computer science (OMSCS) program, educational economists Joshua Goodman and Amanda Pallais and public policy expert Julia Melkers found that digital learning can tap into a new market of students by offering an online degree that is equivalent in all ways to an in-person degree, at a fraction of the cost.

A closer look at Georgia Tech’s model could show universities across the nation how to use the digital sphere to spread the benefits of higher education.

Expanding the Higher Education Market

The OMSCS program is the first of its kind — a large-scale and inexpensive online degree program from a highly ranked department at a top university. Students in the program watch recorded lectures at their own pace and communicate with faculty members and teaching assistants in online office hours. The program costs about $7,000, whereas Georgia Tech’s in-person master of science in computer science (MSCS) program costs out-of-state students about $45,000. The MSCS and OMSCS programs have similar admissions criteria, although MSCS admits 15 percent of applicants a year, and the OMSCS admits 55 percent.

The findings suggest that without Georgia Tech’s online program, nearly all of the applicants seeking a master’s degree would not have been able to obtain one.

In their study, Goodman, Melkers, and Pallais examined data on spring 2014, fall 2014, and spring 2015 applicants to the OMSCS, alongside fall 2013 and fall 2014 applicants to the MSCS. Their main takeaway: The OMSCS students likely would have had no other way to obtain a master’s in computer science without this online option.

Differences between the two pools of applicants helped reveal that the OMSCS degree is reaching a new population of students. Only 20 out of 8,500 applicants applied to both programs. The average MSCS applicant is 24 years old and international, applying at the beginning of his or her career. The average OMSCS applicant, on the other hand, is 35, American, and in the middle of a career. And while the applicant pools are fairly similar in terms of gender and race, OMSCS applicants come from colleges “with a higher proportion of low-income students … lower graduation rates, and lower SAT scores.”

The researchers were also able to test whether admission to OMSCS provided an otherwise absent path to a graduate degree. In the first year of the program, admissions officers were substantially more likely to accept applicants with a GPA of 3.26 or higher. Using data from the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks enrollment in U.S. higher education, the researchers examined enrollment outcomes for applicants just above and just below this threshold.

They found that nearly all of those admitted to the OMSCS program ultimately enrolled, and that very few who were denied admission enrolled in another program. In other words, without Georgia Tech’s OMSCS program, nearly all of those seeking a master’s degree would not have been able to obtain one.


“This is evidence that such mid-career students had no compelling educational alternatives until this program began,” says Goodman, an associate professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “There’s a large untapped market here.”

Nearly all the students admitted to the online master's program ultimately enrolled, and very few who were denied admission enrolled in another program — suggesting that these students had few alternatives.

There’s also a model for universities seeking to fill a need in the labor market. “The OMSCS program is dramatically expanding the number of Americans obtaining a master’s degree in computer science,” says Pallais, an associate professor of economics at Harvard. “We estimate that seven percent more Americans will get this degree each year as a result of the program” — a remarkable expansion in a fast-growing sector.

More broadly, the study suggests that if other universities were to replicate Georgia Tech’s model, the United States could see enormous increases in the amount of people accessing higher education. “This is the first rigorous evidence that we know of showing an online degree program can increase educational attainment,” write the authors.

The researchers suspect that the Georgia Tech degree may be particularly attractive to students because it is not labeled “online” — it’s a traditional M.S. degree, equivalent to the degree in-person students receive. What’s more, says Pallais, it’s a degree from a highly ranked computer science department that costs far less than students would typically pay. And “it also allows students the flexibility to obtain this credential while working full time, and without having to move.”

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