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This issue looks at how the Coursera-powered iMBA from Illinois is faring and why Target and Walmart are ramping up their college tuition benefits. Also, a Q&A with Scott Pulsipher, WGU’s president. And Ryan Craig on the Age of Apprenticeship. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)

The iMBA Evolves

This week’s ASU+GSV Summit might trigger memories of the early MOOC euphoria of a decade ago, with news from the conference about the maturing business models of former MOOC providers amid developing competition on short courses in the online program management space.

Most experts agree that the first MOOC-related move with legit market-shifting potential didn’t arrive until the 2014 launch of an online master’s degree in computer science by the Georgia Institute of Technology with Udacity, followed by the 2016 creation of the iMBA by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Coursera.

The two highly selective research universities offered dramatically reduced prices for the online graduate degrees while also opening up their admissions funnels to a wider range of students. With a total tuition of $6,600, Georgia Tech’s program is booming these days—reaching an enrollment of 10,799 students last fall.

The iMBA from the Gies College of Business at Illinois has a total tuition price of $22,500, less than one-fifth the $125,589 tuition price tag for the highly ranked online MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And just five years in, the iMBA this year enrolled nearly 6,000 students, more than the number of students who attend the college’s residential business degree programs.

Illinois dropped its residential MBA two years ago to focus on the popular iMBA. The flagship university has invested heavily in its e-learning team and built four production studios. And the Gies College now offers two similar online degrees on Coursera’s platform—a master’s of science in accountancy and the new master’s of science in management. 

The university (which can make a case that it helped create the internet) is just getting started with its online ambitions, says Brooke Elliott, an associate dean and professor of accounting in the Gies College.

“We are now serving learners who never thought they would have the opportunity to pursue education at Gies and who we never thought we would have the opportunity to serve,” she says.

Try Before You Buy

When asked how student retention in the iMBA measures up, given the lighter admissions lift and much lower price point, Elliott says those factors are why the program has maintained a high retention rate of 95 percent across all its terms.

Like test-driving a car at the dealership, she says, nondegree students can take courses in foundational material for the iMBA, paying fees of $79 to certify their completion of the first segment and chipping away at the degree while helping to boost their chances of being admitted. Or they can complete noncredit MOOC versions of iMBA courses, then enroll in the for-credit and tuition-bearing portion of the courses.

“The open-enrollment model allows students to try out our program and our approach to online education before they fully commit,” says Elliott. “We believe this pathway approach to education is attractive and important for working professionals who are considering building new knowledge and skills but bear a real opportunity cost in doing so.”

The admissions process, which features live interviews, is geared toward setting realistic expectations for working learners, including how to balance their education, job, and family life. And the iMBA’s curriculum is designed so students can immediately apply what they learn to the workplace. For example, a course in leadership and teams challenges students to use theoretical knowledge from the course in their jobs, such as tactics of negotiation, then to bring feedback back to the classroom.

Unbundling the Degree

The iMBA can be broken into seven pieces, each featuring three or four courses in discrete areas of learning, such as financial management or digital marketing. Completers of each so-called specialization earn a certificate of completion and a digital badge. The iMBA microcredentials are among roughly 1,400 specializations offered on Coursera’s platform.

“The specialization approach enables learners to break the learning journey into more manageable bite-sized pieces that meet them where they are and recognizes that learners vary in their capacity to dive in,” says Amanda Brantner, senior associate director of learner relations at the Gies College. They also serve as milestones students can celebrate and use for motivation to get to graduation.

While the online MBA space has gotten more competitive during the last five years, no other university has followed Illinois in opening up a highly selective MBA program with the low cost and open admissions of the iMBA.


For one thing, the process hasn’t been easy, says Elliott:

“We made bold decisions as a university and college to partner with Coursera, who had only operated in the MOOC space, to suspend our residential MBA programs, to build a staff and infrastructure internally that looks more a start-up production company than a college of business, and to put our very best faculty in our most affordable programs. Managing the shared governance processes at the university, the beliefs of our alums about online education, and a partnership between a for-profit and an academic institution is not for the fainthearted.”

Yet Elliott says the university’s land-grant mission means it must provide access to high-quality, affordable, and flexible business education and skills development options for residents of the state, and beyond.

The Kicker:

“It’s easier to create a program like this, and to continue to invest in it, when it is what you are supposed to be doing as an organization,” Elliott says.

Broader Market for Flexible Learning

A ‘Skills-Denominated’ Learning and Work Model
A ‘Skills-Denominated’ Learning and Work

Western Governors University graduated nearly 50,000 last year. WGU president Scott Pulsipher talks with The Job + Work Shift about policies that can help expand access for working learners and whether CBE might finally have its moment.

Opinion: This Is the Dawning of the Age of Apprenticeship
Opinion: This Is the Dawning of the Age of

Ryan Craig, managing director at Achieve Partners, has argued for several years that the U.S. must establish faster and cheaper alternatives to college. He wrote the book on it. Now, he writes, the #1 alternative is apprenticeships.

Big-Box Tuition Assistance

Target and Walmart both recently made college free for all their U.S. employees—a combined total of more than 1.8M workers. Other large companies are making similar moves. And analysts say increasing urgency to hold on to employees is driving the investment in tuition assistance.

Roughly 60 percent of businesses offer some form of tuition support to employees, says John Dooney, HR knowledge advisor for SHRM. And 8 percent help pay off their workers’ student loans. Both of those numbers and the generosity of benefits are likely to rise amid labor shortages.

“Turnover rates are really going to increase. They’re doing everything in their arsenal to prevent that,” says Dooney. “Anything that will retain employees will be increased.”

Click over to Work Shift for more on the market for employer-sponsored education benefits.

More From Work Shift

ASU goes big with work-based learning ‘marketplace’
ASU goes big with work-based learning ‘marketplace’

The ‘mega-university’ makes a similar-size push into work-based learning. It’s a national test case for whether work can be integrated into the curriculum at scale.

What Colorado might be telling us about community college enrollment nationwide this fall

The state’s community college system projects enrollment will drop more than 6 percent this fall—perhaps a harbinger of two-year enrollment nationwide as the Delta variant adds uncertainty and the economy tries to rebound.

One of the nation’s largest community colleges puts its ‘rescue’ funds to student aid and 24-hour support
Cuyahoga Community College hopes that increasing aid and offering round-the-clock support will make it easier for its largely working adult students to come back to and stay in college.

Open Tabs

Student Debt

“The median net worth of households with Black college graduates in their 30s has plunged over the past three decades to less than one-tenth the net worth of their white counterparts,” The Wall Street Journal reported, citing Federal Reserve data. “The drop is driven by skyrocketing student debt and sluggish income growth.”

Alternative Credentials

Noodle, the online program management company (OPM), is joining 2U and Coursera in the nondegree credential space, Doug Lederman of Inside Higher Ed reported this week. Noodle, which says it charges less than its competitors to create online programs, has partnered with the University of Michigan, Case Western Reserve University, and Columbia University on its nondegree platform.

Boot camp providers typically take an 80 percent cut of tuition revenue in their partnerships with universities, according to a recent report from the Century Foundation. Yet the programs largely fall through the cracks and avoid scrutiny from accreditors and state regulators, found the report, which called for tighter regulatory oversight of the often-lucrative partnerships.

Outcomes Regulation

“We will almost surely end up with more transparency and accountability on completion, employment, and earnings for all postsecondary programs,” Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, recently wrote. “We may also get some form of employment and earnings regulatory standards to go with an expansion in public support for certificates and short-term training programs and even some non-credit programs.”

Community Colleges

Jee Hang Lee has been named the next president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees. Lee has worked for ACCT for 15 years with a focus on policy, currently serving as a senior vice president. He is slated to succeed J. Noah Brown, the group’s current president and CEO, in November.

Job Retention

Almost 3.9 million workers quit their jobs in June, representing 2.7 percent of the workforce and close to the record set in April, according to federal data. “There were more job openings than unemployed workers, a dynamic that hasn’t occurred since before the pandemic,” reported Sam Ro of Axios.

Manufacturing Jobs

The Manufacturing Institute has created a reskilling program that uses virtual reality to prepare veterans of the U.S. military for careers in manufacturing, which faces a severe labor shortage. The program, which is available to military spouses, uses VR simulations from the firm TRANSFR in partnership with the Texas State Technical College.

Manufacturing companies in Connecticut are seeking experienced workers who are 50 and older to get training to make a career shift, reports the Hartford Courant. For example, a two-semester, 10-month program at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at Housatonic Community Colleges offers 34 college credits and internships to older students, including a 69-year-old man who graduated and quickly found a job.

Tech Jobs

Nearly 70 percent of U.S. businesses report a lack of diversity in their tech workforce, according to a new survey from Wiley. And the same percentage of young tech workers report a lack of inclusion and belonging in company culture. “Investment alone isn’t enough to achieve equity in the workplace,” said Todd Zipper, president of Wiley Education Services. “We need to take an ecosystem approach to workforce diversity.”

Health Care Jobs

Chamberlain University and the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses are teaming up with three health-care systems around the country on a workforce project that seeks to address critical shortages of operating room nurses. Beginning next year, Chamberlain will offer 16 weeks of free online training on industry-specific competencies to its students, who can earn a badge and get on-site experience.

Let me know what I missed. Catch you next week. —PF @paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.