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The $7,000 Master’s Degree That’s Scaring Colleges

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The Georgia Institute of Technology rocked the higher education world when it announced plans to offer a fully online master’s degree in computer science for roughly one-seventh the price of its on-campus equivalent – less than $7,000.

The project is powered by a joint venture with Udacity, an online higher-education course provider that stands to earn 40 percent of the tuition revenues. The AT&T Corporation, which is providing two-thirds of the estimated ramp-up costs, expects to funnel existing employees through the program and recruit new ones at the back-end of it.

Reaction to the news has been mixed.

Online education advocates are excited about what they see as an opportunity for broad access to substantially more affordable higher learning.

Others worry that the wholesale democratization of higher education will lead to deteriorating outcomes and the diluted quality of advanced degrees—particularly as a larger number of students are attracted to the courses. There is also a fair amount of academic carping about the competition—how joint ventures such as this will hijack resources that might otherwise be used to develop and deliver the staff’s own groundbreaking programs.

The notion of dot-edus teaming up with dot-coms isn’t novel. For years, schools have been pandering for corporate cash to bankroll special projects. (Lately the money is also used to bridge operating revenue shortfalls.) But as to the matter of diverted resources, I don’t buy it. In fact, I would argue that the requisite capital for transforming today’s schools into tomorrow’s cutting-edge academies has long been under foot.

Where Colleges Have Gone Wrong

The core mission of higher education is to deliver knowledge. However, in order to fund that mission, the schools have depended on a variety of sideline businesses. Not only is this unrelated and unrelenting pursuit of revenues a distraction, it also consumes capital that could have been used to improve educational content, modernize delivery systems and reverse the trend of escalating tuition prices.

An example is the cash that’s deeply buried in campus real estate. If one of the many hopes that parents have for their college-bound kids is for them to learn how to function on their own, shouldn’t the schools help? Dormitories, cafeterias and other holdings can be repurposed by others into independent apartments, grocery stores, bistros and even, conference centers and incubators for fledgling ventures.

Even more resources can be made available by consolidating the wastefully duplicative administrative functions that exist among local and regional schools. Hospitals moved in this direction when government reimbursement and private insurer payment rates decreased in the 1980s. Many of the institutions that participate in the healthcare systems we know today—whether through strategic affiliations or mergers—retain their individual areas of expertise.

It’s time for the schools to follow suit.

However, there is no sense in liquidating real estate holdings and eliminating redundancies unless institutional academia accepts the fact that times have changed and so too must they. Otherwise, all the asset and operational restructures in the world won’t amount to much more than burning the furniture just to stay warm.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not represent the views of the company or its affiliates.

Image: iStockphoto

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  • Tracy Tanner

    Love it! Where do I sign up?

  • Donald Summers

    All very correct; higher ed leaders are stuck in physical plant arms race (along with suffering from a dose of edifice complex and the ills of sports boosterism), and it will take a disruptive innovation– perhaps this or something like it– to reshape the business model and incentives.

    Excellent insights. Much of the conversation around sky-high tuitions is missing of insights like several provided here. Bravo.

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Thanks for commenting Donald. We agree that Mitchell Weiss is providing insights that are often overlooked in the debate over college costs.

      And personally I can’t get over the dorms most students live in now…nothing like the closet I shared with my roommate in college.

  • reynaldo

    Having done my m.s. in penn state on the #1 AE college in the country. I just cant see how this will provide the same level of education. I used to spend 10 hours a week in meetings with my thesis advisor. Some others at the grad students office. Ansd some more meeting with professors in search for jobs. Going to conventions with my fellow grad .

    Online?

    At that point just go to disneyland and get a mickey mouse masters….

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