Novel Online Degree Program Attracts Students Who Need Jobs

Big problems take innovative solutions, and Terri Fiez, head of Oregon State University’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), is not one to back away from a challenge.

One of the biggest problems facing the U.S. is unemployment. Half of all new college graduates are jobless or underemployed, according to an Associated Press article this year. And yet high-tech companies cannot fill positions in computer science. The computing job market is still growing — 22 to 30 percent according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez hiking the Bucegi Mountains in RomaniaEven though he had previous experience working as a data analyst, John Cooney felt like his lack of a computer science degree was a huge drawback.

Paradoxically, over the last 10 years the number of computer science graduates from the Oregon University System has not increased. Fiez saw an opportunity to make a difference for students, industry and the economy, and partnered with Oregon State Ecampus to make it happen.

Just a year after her aha moment, OSU became the first university in the country to launch an online computer science degree program that can be completed in one year for students who already have a bachelor’s degree.

“I really see it as a jobs program,” Fiez said. “It’s about impacting the economy and enabling students to attain jobs with a good salary and the potential for professional growth.”

The popularity of the Ecampus program exceeded expectations when 139 students from diverse backgrounds signed up for the first classes this summer. Of those students, 32 percent are unemployed and 50 percent work less than half time. Students reported in a survey their top reasons for choosing the program were flexibility, career prospects, cost efficiency and the option to finish in a year.

Being able to finish with a second bachelor’s degree in just one year was critical for John Cooney, who earned a B.A. in History from Carlton College in 2009. Cooney had been out of work for nine months before he started the program last June from his home in Minnesota.

“Every day I’d pick up the paper and see they are hiring people with CS degrees but there was nothing for people with degrees in history, or really any of the humanities,” he said.

Even though he had previous experience working as a data analyst, he felt like his lack of a computer science degree was a huge drawback. But it was his brother, a computer programmer, who talked him into pursuing a CS degree.

“I had always resisted programming. I thought it was way too math-heavy and a boring subject, but my brother really convinced me that it’s more about solving problems,” he said.

With two programming classes and a discrete math class now under his belt, his attitude has completely changed. He is now looking forward to seeking a programming job that uses higher-level computer languages.

Samantha Midkiff “Computer science-related inventions are huge right now in terms of patent law,” Samantha Midkiff says, hoping that her computer science degree will help her access that market as a lawyer.

Samantha Midkiff had a completely different purpose in mind for her computer science degree. Although she has long been interested in computer science, she couldn’t see until recently how it would fit into her career goals. Her first degree was in microbiology (University of Alabama, 2008). Then as a student of law she focused on intellectual property issues such as patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets (J.D., University of Akron, 2012).

“Computer science-related inventions are huge right now in terms of patent law,” she said, hoping that her computer science degree will help her access that market as a lawyer.

She was surprised at how challenging learning programming has been for her. “I’ve definitely learned a lot. It’s totally different from other course work that I’ve taken, so that's been daunting in a way, but it also makes it exciting because it is totally new,” she said.

Fiez hopes to reach more students by obtaining funding for scholarships. She is also seeking support for two programs to assist students in securing a job — an online career fair, and remote internships with partnering companies.

It seems clear the program is addressing a need. In a 2011 statewide survey of prospective online learners conducted by Ecampus, computer science emerged as the second-most popular degree subject area after business.

“It’s proof that our new computer science online program will meet the needs of adult learners and give them access to a degree highly demanded in the job market,” said Jessica DuPont, the Ecampus director of marketing.


—By Rachel Robertson