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What? An Online Ivy League Degree That’s Priced to Sell?

Wait, what? Whoever heard of an Ivy League university that’s offering a 100 percent online degree—and for only about one-third of the price of its on-campus equivalent?

Yet this is precisely what Dartmouth College appears to have announced in September 2023, when the school launched a new computer engineering master’s degree for working professionals. In partnership with Coursera, the program will mark the first online master’s degree in computer engineering at any Ivy League university and Dartmouth’s first completely online degree program.

But the big news here is the aggressive price point of $44,100. That’s only about a third of the $126,000 price tag for the same curriculum offered in person at the private university’s campus in Hanover, New Hampshire. What’s more, the college says it will even bill the online program’s students on a “pay-as-you-go” model for only a single course at a time within the focused eight-course program, instead of charging them for a semester or quarter in advance like most private universities traditionally have required.

Dartmouth’s move comes just before a “disruptive” (sub-$30,000) pricing reset for online master’s degrees reportedly was a hot discussion topic during the 2023 edX Global Forum in Washington, DC early in October. A sudden perfect storm of high inflation, increased competition, and higher digital marketing costs appear to be curbing demand for some online programs, exerting downward pressure on tuition. “Universities are trying to understand how large and permanent this shift is in normative pricing for degrees, what low-cost degrees mean for quality, and how this pricing level impacts the ability of schools to cover expenses and derive any margins,” wrote a team of Inside Higher Ed’s editors who had attended the conference.

That shifting marketplace may not exactly seem like great news to university administrators concerned about lower tuition revenues. But it’s fabulous news for potential students who until now had felt priced out of the market for highly-ranked but traditionally expensive master’s degree programs like Dartmouth’s—and especially those resistant to bearing the burden of excessive student loan debt.

In another surprise, this online degree’s admissions policy appears to be designed to broaden access to education—an unusual departure for any elite Ivy League university. That’s according to a statement issued about the Dartmouth partnership by Coursera’s new chief content officer, Dr. Marni Baker Stein. Dr. Stein joined Coursera in December 2022 after serving as the provost and chief academic officer at America’s largest university, Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University, whose online enrollment in 2021 surpassed 150,000 students.

For example, applicants to Dartmouth’s Master of Engineering in Computer Engineering—or “Online MEng” for short—don’t even need an engineering bachelor’s degree. Dispensing with such a requirement opens up the applicant pool to potential students with other kinds of STEM training or degrees in fields like math or physics.

However, they “should have knowledge in core areas, including mathematics, programming, digital logic, and circuit fundamentals,” says Dr. Stein. Interestingly enough, the Thayer School of Engineering’s admissions committee is even willing to consider performance in online certificate programs, like Dartmouth’s own C Programming with Linux Specialization on Coursera.

Countering the CHIPS Act’s Shortage of Engineers

Now, why in the world would an elite school like Dartmouth offer such a generous value proposition? One possible reason might have something to do with predictions of a sudden and acute shortage of American engineers resulting from recent federal legislation.

In August 2022, President Biden signed into law the CHIPS and Science Act, a landmark legislative package that aims to revitalize the U.S. semiconductor industry. Even though Silicon Valley companies like Intel Corporation accelerated the industry’s growth by introducing microprocessors in the early 1970s, foreign competitors have continually eroded America’s share of the global market. Today, the United States only manufactures about 12 percent of the world’s semiconductor supply, trailing Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and China.

Moreover, some of the largest producers on which American companies depend are headquartered offshore in politically vulnerable regions. For example, Taiwanese wafer fabs account for 65 percent of the global market, and that nation’s largest mega-foundry—TSMC—alone commands a whopping worldwide market share of 56 percent. In fact, almost a quarter of TSMC’s revenue comes from a single American customer: Apple.

The CHIPS and Science Act aims to rapidly improve America’s competitiveness in semiconductor production. The Act provides $52 billion in subsidies as part of $280 billion over ten years to support domestic chip manufacturing and tax credits for companies that build new chip factories in the United States. The Act also allocates about $13 billion for semiconductor research.

As a targeted national industrial policy, the CHIPS Act is expected to have a tremendous impact on the U.S. economy, creating tens of thousands of new high-quality jobs while boosting GDP. However, it also comes with a huge downside: a likely shortage of American engineers.

This shortage is not by any means a new problem, in the sense that the nation has faced chronic shortages of electrical engineers and computer science professionals for four decades. The difference is the acute nature of the talent shortfall suddenly brought about by the Act’s passage and funding.

“With the CHIPS Act, the semiconductor industry, in particular, could face an acute talent shortage, projecting 67,000 unfilled jobs by 2030,” says Dr. Stein. She emphasizes that the need for engineers with master’s degrees like Dartmouth’s are expected to make up fully a quarter of that shortfall, a forecast issued in mid-2023 by the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Driving the Development of New Online Engineering Degrees

It’s also likely that the CHIPS Act’s acute engineer shortage will incentivize other elite universities to modify their on-campus technical master’s degree programs. That way, the colleges can also offer online versions geared to working adults across the nation.

For example, only a few weeks before the launch of Dartmouth’s Online MEng, the University of California at Berkeley had also announced a new online degree called the Master of Advanced Study in Engineering. Berkeley’s new Online MAS-E program appears to be a more traditional master’s degree that offers a broader selection of interdisciplinary courses besides electrical engineering and computer science in fields like biomedical engineering, manufacturing, and materials science.

However, two key aspects are comparable to Dartmouth’s offering. For one thing, it’s the first degree program offered by UC Berkeley on the Coursera platform, which will make a Berkeley engineering education available to online students all over the world. And second, UC’s degree is priced even more aggressively than Dartmouth’s, with a tuition price tag of only $1,750 per unit—or only $42,000 for the complete 24-unit program.

The Pioneering Forerunner: Georgia Tech’s Online MS in Computer Science

Although innovative initiatives, neither of these two brand-new programs at Dartmouth or UC Berkeley happens to be the first computer science master’s degree program offered completely online at a disruptive price.

The forerunner of these two programs is the pioneering Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program launched by the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta back in 2014. This innovation turned into a landmark development in the history of online education as the earliest model that combined a highly-ranked degree program with inexpensive online course delivery. Writing in Forbes in November 2023, Kaplan’s Chief Partnership Officer Brandon Busteed called Georgia Tech’s OMSCS “the most successful degree program in history.

So far, we’ve covered this Georgia Tech online master’s program twice here at, most recently in our August 2023 feature article about GT’s fix for artificial intelligence hallucinations. Briefly, in 2014, the College of Computing’s bold OMSCS experiment took a prestigious STEM graduate program, repackaged it for online delivery, and distributed it over Udacity’s new massive open online course platform during a period when trendy MOOC classes were all the rage in higher education. AT&T also invested $2 million, mostly for the rights to offer the degree program to its employees.

Georgia Tech then disruptively priced its entire new program to sell for an ultra-low charge of only $6,330, even though the university’s on-campus program cost about six times as much—and the average on-campus master’s degree in computer science offered by private universities in the United States costs ten times as much. Moreover, the program’s value proposition motto, “accessibility through affordability and technology,” took direct aim at the brand strategy of most other elite graduate colleges that emphasize selectivity and exclusiveness.

Even though many observers in 2014 had questioned the university’s strategy and only 380 students had enrolled during that first year, times have changed. Ten years later, Georgia Tech’s Online MS in Computer Science is arguably the most successful degree program in American graduate education, whether in-person or online. With a rapidly-growing alumni network of more than 6,500 graduates, as of 2021, this single program enrolled almost 12,000 students—nearly half of Georgia Tech’s entire sixth-ranked total graduate enrollment of 26,398 students.

Boosting Educational Access and Attainment Online

What’s more, an influential 2019 study concluded that the program “substantially increases overall enrollment in education, expanding the pool of students rather than substituting for existing educational options.” In the study, researchers provided the historic first evidence that online course delivery not only boosted enrollment but also broadened access to education.

“People thought they were crazy,” said Dr. Joshua Goodman, a public policy professor from Harvard University who co-wrote the paper published in the University of Chicago’s prestigious Journal of Labor Economics titled “Can Online Delivery Increase Access to Education?” He told Inside Higher Ed, “They thought that Georgia Tech was going to cannibalize its own revenue stream. But the profile of people applying online is so different, there’s virtually no overlap.”

When Dr. Goodman’s team had compared the first 18,000 online and on-campus degree applicants between 2014 and 2016, they found that less than 0.2 percent had applied to both programs. It turned out that the typical applicant to the full-time, on-campus program was a 24-year-old recent college graduate from India; in part, that’s because studying on campus is popular with foreign graduate students who want access to the U.S. labor market. By contrast, the typical applicant to the online program was a 34-year-old mid-career American who was employed full-time and seeking a part-time master’s program.

The team had also observed that students admitted by the online program typically displayed undergraduate academic credentials that ranked slightly below those of their counterparts admitted by the in-person program. Nevertheless, the grades in the online students’ final assessments were slightly above those of the on-campus students. The researchers hailed this finding as “the first rigorous evidence that we know of showing that an online degree program can increase educational attainment.”

All in all, by providing remarkable accessibility and affordability, online degree programs like these three can help deliver advanced technical skills that can transform the lives and careers of working adults. Moreover, by introducing programs like these into a relatively sparse competitive landscape, the engineering colleges at Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, and Georgia Tech might still rank among the first to market. However, they could soon encounter competition as other top universities launch similar online offerings.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.