The Georgia Institute of Technology this year launched an online master's degree program in computer science that doesn't have to be distinguished as distance education on a graduate's resume. For $6,600, a student can complete all of his or her degree requirements over the Internet.
With student loan debt at an all-time high, this affordable option is a huge draw for Georgia Tech. State residents pursuing the same degree on campus paid $515 per credit hour for the current fall semester, compared with $134 per hour for those taking the online program. At $1,150 per credit hour, out-of-state tuition is more than eight times higher per hour than the distance education option.
Here's the question: If it costs dramatically less to get a master's degree online than on campus, is the degree somehow less valuable to employers than a traditional degree?
"A less expensive route to a degree is a great one to take, as long as you believe quality doesn't suffer," says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.
One 2014 Gallup survey demonstrates that a distance student can have a quality learning experience online. Gallup studied a university with online adult degree programs and found that its graduates are more engaged at work, have higher well-being and are more likely to be employed than college graduates nationally.
Gallup found 68% of the university's alumni strongly agreed that they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams while in college. That's three times higher than the national average. This difference is largely attributable to the success of the school's model to pair students with a mentor, from matriculation to graduation -- this is not surprising, given Gallup's findings on the importance of mentoring.
Americans are also warming to the idea that online programs can offer a quality education. In 2011, 30% of those surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that online colleges and universities offer high-quality education. By 2013, this increased to 37%.
"Online education offers many students an organized, accessible and affordable opportunity to develop and possibly excel in their field," says Brandon Rigoni, Ph.D., Gallup's associate director for selection and development.
The online program at Georgia Tech, says Rigoni, could increase the number of competent workers in a field that has a serious demand for talent. For employers, the master's degree -- whether earned online or not -- offers an easy way to identify those with technical know-how.
As for whether an online master's is worth its salt, Rigoni says it's not a matter of measuring up to a traditional degree as much as it is about creating a window of opportunity.
"More people will have that opportunity if they have a degree," he says.