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University of North Texas

Online learning provider Coursera took another step into the undergraduate education market yesterday with the launch of its first bachelor’s degree program at a university in the United States.

The University of North Texas, a public research institution in Denton, Tex., will offer its bachelor of applied arts and sciences (B.A.A.S.) program through Coursera beginning in fall 2020.

The bachelor’s degree program is aimed at working adults with some college education and course credits but no degree, said Adam Fein, vice president for digital strategy and innovation at UNT. He hopes the degree will also attract community college students, veterans and students based overseas.

Fein previously worked with Coursera to launch the online master of business administration (iMBA) at the University of Illinois. When he moved to UNT, he saw an opportunity to partner with Coursera again by opening up online education to a very different demographic.

“We have a lot of first-generation students at UNT,” said Fein. “I thought, ‘This is an area where we can really make an impact.’”

UNT currently has around 1,200 students studying towards B.A.A.S. degrees on campus, said Fein. Students can gain a concentration (the equivalent of 12 credit hours) in dozens of topics, he said. They can also transfer up to 84 credits earned at other accredited institutions. At least 34 of the total 120 credit hours required for the online B.A.A.S. degree must be completed at UNT.

“While the program is already pretty popular on campus, as it is flexible and allows students to build a customized path, we think it will translate well online,” said Fein. “The figure of 36 million Americans with some college but no degree is very disturbing to me. We want to reverse that trend.”

The online B.A.A.S. program looks a lot like the on-campus program, except the number of concentrations has been limited to six initially, said Fein. Through Coursera, UNT students can obtain concentrations in administration, organizational supervision, social services, hospitality, media innovation and consumer behavior. A seventh concentration in information technology is available to students who complete a Google IT support certificate, which is also offered through Coursera.

The number of concentrations will likely be expanded in the future, said Fein.

“We didn’t want it to be too complicated,” he said. Students interested in pursuing the B.A.A.S. degree online will be assisted by UNT advisers who can help them transfer their credits and select the right degree path. The cost of the online B.A.A.S. is $330 per credit hour. The university charges $470 per credit hour for non-Texas or Oklahoma residents for on-campus undergraduate degrees.

Dil Sidhu, chief content officer at Coursera, noted that this is not the company’s first foray into undergraduate degrees. Goldsmiths, University of London, launched a bachelor’s degree in computer science through Coursera in 2018.

Undergraduate degrees have long been seen as a “heavier lift” than graduate degrees by online learning providers, but there is no denying that the market for undergraduate degrees is much bigger, said Sidhu. The success of Coursera's computer science degree with Goldsmiths, which now has more than 1,000 students, shows that there is room to do more in this space, he said. EdX, another online learning platform, launched a program called MicroBachelors earlier this month that will allow students to gain credit toward a full bachelor’s degree online.

“When we start something, we want to learn what is working well and make sure that it is sustainable before we grow,” said Sidhu.

Sean Gallagher, founder and executive director of Northeastern University's Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, said it makes sense to try to scale UNT's B.A.A.S. degree program with Coursera. "As much energy as there is around nondegree credentials, bachelor's degrees are still highly demanded in the job market," he said in an email.

MOOC providers such as Coursera have had an important impact on graduate education, and moves into the undergraduate market will be important to watch, said Gallagher. He said he is interested to see how much support is available to students who pursue these degrees. Often students in the degree-completion space are "more difficult to recruit and retain compared to graduate students, where the MOOC entities have classically focused," he said.

The $330 cost per credit hour is comparable to that offered by institutions such as Southern New Hampshire University, said Gallagher.

"In the online bachelor's degree completion market, competition has been driven more by price at times than prestige. I wonder if in the future we will see $150- or $250-per-credit-hour programs based on new models and technological developments -- just as we've seen with $10-20,000 master's degrees."

Phil Hill, a partner at MindWires Consulting and publisher of the blog Phil on Ed Tech, said Coursera’s partnership with UNT reminded him of Cal State Online’s partnership with online program management company and publisher Pearson. Both programs accepted transfer credit and focused on degree completion at the undergraduate level. But the Cal State Online degree-completion program was abandoned months after it officially launched in 2013 after failing to achieve a sufficient scale.

“There are a lot of similarities between the programs, but acceptance of online ed is greater now, and the OPM market has progressed quite a bit,” said Hill. If Coursera and UNT are willing to learn and adjust as they progress, they are more likely to succeed, he said.

“With Cal State, a lot of the problem was hubris, an attitude of ‘we know better than you,’” he said.

Coursera has a pool of more than 47 million users, 75 percent of which are based outside the U.S. But whether these users will be interested in bachelor's degrees remains to be seen, said Hill. Coursera acknowledged that the majority of its users already hold bachelor's degrees.

“UNT is making two really big bets in partnering with Coursera,” said Hill. “One, that the MOOC funnel will be sufficient to allow them to lower tuition. And two, that leveraging the Coursera brand will make this offering distinctive in an increasingly crowded market.”

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