Earning Your Degree Doesn’t Mean Putting Your Life On Hold

Online degrees give everyone a chance at a high-quality education that fits their lifestyle

Programs such as the University of Illinois iMBA, delivered entirely online through Coursera, give students from all walks of life the opportunity to earn a graduate degree at their own pace and at lower cost.

Patricia Ribiero Peña is a new mother with a full-time job, and juggling both can be challenging. Yet, between work and parenting, Peña found time to pursue  a graduate degree and further her career. By completing the University of Illinois’ highly respected iMBA program entirely online on Coursera, she was able to work around her busy schedule.

“The concept of doing an MBA was a little scary,” says Peña. “I always imagined a block of two-to-three years I had to fulfill of nonstop studying, and then someone sent me a link with this new innovative program.”

Peña is like a lot of aspiring learners, who know the transformational impact a graduate degree can have but are unable to uproot their families and commit upwards of $50,000 per year to pursue an on-campus degree. That’s where Coursera can make a difference: its online degrees often cost less than the on-campus alternative, and its programs are as robust and more flexible than traditional in-person degrees, too.

“I have a full-time job, so I couldn’t go to the campus,” says Ashish Kumar, an online data science student at the University of Illinois. “The cost, flexibility and material — you put all this together and it’s really phenomenal.”

There is no question about the value of degrees. The difference in career opportunities and earnings over a lifetime for those with a high school degree versus those with a bachelor’s is estimated at $1 million, while the difference between a bachelor’s and master’s is more than $400,000, according to a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. As the economy increasingly values technical and critical thinking skills, those wage gaps are likely to increase.

“You have to keep learning and if you can’t keep learning on your job, you need to find other outlets through which to do so,” says Dr. Michael Vigoda, a retired anesthesiologist and former University of Miami professor who took almost a dozen data science courses through Coursera’s partnership with the University of Michigan. “Coursera is a great way to do so.”

There is a fear, however, of rising tuition costs; concerns about student debt can scare potential students away. For established mid-career learners, factors such as geographic challenges, family and professional obligations, and the realities of the on-campus routine make taking time to learn difficult. There is also a stigma around receiving an online degree that may prevent aspiring learners from getting started. “There is a certain skepticism about the actual learning content of an online course, that it’s more of a certification and checking a box than a true experience in learning,” says Vigoda. “When I told my friends that I really understood how deep neural networks work, they were astounded that you could come to that level of understanding through an online course.”

The maturation of online courses is part of a continued push in higher education to increase the accessibility of a degree. “We wanted to do something to democratize education and to make a degree that was available for people so they can continue to work, continue to raise families,” says Jeffrey Brown, the dean of the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois.

Coursera achieves this by slashing the cost of a degree without any decrease in quality. “I was shocked about how [studying online] felt as good or better than when I was sitting in a class in my undergraduate days,” says Dan Gartley, an iMBA student at the University of Illinois.

The professors teach the same material as in their on-campus classes, but do so at a price that is often nearly 50 percent less. The Illinois iMBA program only costs $22,000.

Coursera’s offerings are also unique in that you can break up the decision to start graduate school into a series of smaller steps that allow you to acclimate to the coursework and decide if the degree is worth pursuing. “One of the features that worked well for me was how modular it is,” says Gartley. “I did the Digital Marketing Specialization, and then they started taking applications for the iMBA, and I thought I’ll give it a shot.”

The “try before you buy” approach that many Coursera degrees offer allows students to apply progress from previously taken courses and Specializations to a full degree program if they decide, like Gartley, to apply. Students can test the waters and, over time, gain the confidence to commit.

Coursera’s university partners structure their programs to be accessible to a diverse population. Farhad Zimarai, for example, is like any other Illinois iMBA student. He just happened to start the program very far from the state of Illinois. “I was trapped in a locality in Afghanistan that did not allow me to get a quality education, but [the professors] didn’t let me feel that I am in Afghanistan,” he says. “Being part of the iMBA was freedom from that.”

Such classroom diversity is one of many aspects that make online degrees so worthwhile, exposing students to viewpoints from around the world and from various stages of life. “One of the great parts of the iMBA is the life stations [that you are exposed to],” says Zimarai.

The diversity of the classroom is only made possible by universities and Coursera working together to create high-quality online degrees that open higher education to people of different ages, careers, and life stages. “Getting my iMBA makes me feel empowered because I don’t need to stop being myself,” says Peña. “I don’t need to stop working. I don’t need to stop being a mother. I don’t need to stop having my life, and that is everything.”  

Here’s how Coursera works:

  • Coursera hosts 14 full degree programs from top global universities, such as University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, University of Illinois and Imperial College London. Thirteen of these are master’s programs in Business, Data Science, Computer Science and Public Health, and one is a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of London.
  • Coursera also offers courses, Specializations and certificate programs that give you a head start on a degree, so you can test the waters and gain confidence before you commit.
  • Admitted applicants complete the entire course load online, in their own time, and often receive an identical degree to those who attended on campus.

For more information, visit coursera.org/degrees.

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