The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign plans to start a low-cost online M.B.A. program in partnership with Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based MOOC provider, hoping to meet its land-grant mission of improving access and also to create a new stream of revenue at a time of shrinking state support for higher education.
Students enrolling in the new online master’s program, dubbed the iMBA, could complete the entire degree for about $20,000 — far less than the approximately $50,000 for the on-campus version or the $100,000 for the university’s executive M.B.A.
Anyone would be able to view the course materials at no charge via massive open online courses offered by Coursera, but those who wanted the degree would have to go through the university’s admissions process and pay about $1,000 per course. And students officially enrolled in the iMBA would get greater support from faculty members and access to online discussions with other enrolled students.
The program is the latest in a string of high-profile experiments in using free MOOCs as part of cut-rate degree programs. Just last month Arizona State University announced a MOOC-based equivalent of the first year of a bachelor’s degree for about $6,000. And Illinois modeled its program on a $7,000 computer-science master’s degree offered by the Georgia Institute of Technology in partnership with Udacity, another MOOC provider.
One unusual aspect of the Illinois plan is that students would be able to earn smaller certifications each time they finished three courses, an idea leaders call "stackable credentials." In that way, if students stopped early, they might still have a lighter-weight credential to show potential employers.
"Unlike a degree, which is this binary, zero-one thing, students are getting benefit at every step along the way," said Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera.
Students taking one-off courses would not be eligible for federal financial aid, though, unless they were officially enrolled in the degree program, because of a quirk of federal student-aid rules. Essentially the rules do not allow students to receive aid for prior knowledge, so courses taken before officially enrolling would not be eligible.
The program is starting small — only 200 students will be admitted in its pilot phase.
Raj Echambadi, associate dean for outreach and engagement and a professor of business administration at the College of Business, said that the school felt a "certain competitive pressure" to offer an online M.B.A. of some kind. Several of the business school’s peer institutions, such as Indiana University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, already do. But Mr. Echambadi said leaders at Illinois had decided that they didn’t want to enter the market unless they had something unique to offer.
"This is our 100th year for the College of Business, and we’ve been thinking about our land grant," he said. "At the end of the day we are about democratizing information."
The university jumped into MOOCs early, as an early partner of Coursera beginning in 2012. The six business courses the business school has offered on Coursera have enrolled around 200,000 free students. An appendix to a planning document about the iMBA states that Coursera has agreed to an exclusive arrangement that will make the Illinois M.B.A. the only business degree it offers, but officials at the university and Coursera said that, in the end, there is no exclusivity in the final arrangement. (The proposal starts on Page 61 of the document.)
The hope is that the free MOOCs will raise awareness of both the new iMBA program and the traditional degrees offered by Illinois, officials said. The free programs will also bring other benefits, according to the plan: "With Coursera and the technology, we now have the ability to collect individual data from thousands of students and can start analyzing in real time what works and what doesn’t," the document states. "This ability would enable us to adapt to the ever-changing education marketplace."
The plan was approved on Monday afternoon by the university’s Academic Senate. The program is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2016.
Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads a team exploring new story formats. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page, jeffyoung.net; or try him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.