September 28, 2021

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Choosing an online degree partner? Factors to consider.

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By Betty Vandenbosch, Chief Content Officer at Coursera  

The pandemic has accelerated the rate at which universities worldwide are investing in online learning. To meet learner demand and changing expectations, your institution might be deciding with a renewed conviction to bring some of your most valued credentials online — your degree programs. 

Universities now have many paths and potential partners to help launch online degrees. Coursera is fortunate to be a choice for many top institutions. However, every university has to decide who to partner with based on factors that align with their goals and mission. During my time as the chancellor of Purdue University Global, and since I’ve been at Coursera, the choices available and the selection criteria have become increasingly clear to me. I’d like to share what I have learned. 

While it might seem that the first decision is whether or not to partner, you might be able to make that decision more astutely once you determine which partner would be best for your needs. You can use the following framework to help find the best partner to launch your first online degree or expand your portfolio. 

Factors to consider:


Critical questions


Reach and Student Characteristics 

  • Which demographic would you like to serve? 
  • Would you like to reach new student profiles, such as working professionals?
  • Is your priority reaching students in new or existing geographies? 

Select a partner who can best help you reach your ideal students. 

Consider if you’d like to offer performance-based or other novel approaches to admissions to reach a new profile of students.


  • How many students do you hope to enroll per cohort? 
  • How many cohorts do you plan to start each academic year?
  • Do you or your partner have the capacity to develop and grade up to several hundred assessments per course per term?   
  • How can your partner help reduce technical DevOps or software costs for your degree?

Ensure your partner has a proven track record of filing and serving cohorts at your target size. 

Carefully review partner’s technical tools for teaching and assessing at scale.

Understand software costs associated with delivering your degree programs.

Content Development and Production

  • What is your partner’s instructional design capability, and what level of support will faculty members receive (and require)?
  • How will and can your partner support hands-on learning?
  • Do you want to use your existing online courses as open content leading into your degree program?

Before developing your online degree, you must fully understand your partner’s support level and who will own and support the content. 

Integrating open content that anyone can take before applying to a degree program can help broaden the applicant pool, build confidence in prospective students,  and develop multiple revenue streams.

Innovation and Technology

  • What data, tools, and analytics will you have access to? 
  • How advanced are your partner’s tech stack, uptime, and reliability?
  • How robust are features to prevent plagiarism, offer reliable proctoring, and conduct high-stakes assessments? 
  • Does your partner have the financial stability to invest in long-term R&D, leading to new or improved features? 

Data can inform your pedagogical choices, while reliable technology ensures assignment submissions won’t go down at a crucial time.

Upholding academic integrity increases the value of your degree programs and your university’s overall brand.

Online learning is rapidly evolving. A strong learning experience will determine student satisfaction, cohort growth, and retention.

Cost Transparency 

  • Is the cost structure clear for both you and your partner?
  • Who pays for any upfront program costs?
  • How long will the contract be?

The long-term economic viability of your program depends on a transparent cost structure. 

Student Services and Marketing

  • Do you prefer to co-manage online student services or outsource?
  • Do you or your partner have sophisticated technology for student support and retention services? 
  • How much do you want to spend on marketing?
  • How confident are you in your partner’s marketing? 

Having a clear understanding of how your partner interfaces with students is critical to building lifelong relationships. 

Take marketing costs into consideration as you determine the accessibility and affordability of your degree programs. 

Retention Rate

  • What is the retention rate of other programs the potential partner supports?
  • How has your partner’s degree portfolio expanded over time?

Determine the value and investment the potential partner places on building durable partnerships. 

While your institution may have other unique factors to consider, I hope this framework provides a useful starting point. The decisions you make early on are critical to the long-term success of your online degree programs. You want to select a partner who will work with you to advance your mission, best serve your students, and help you build lifelong learning relationships.

If you’re interested in learning more, read the Building Your Online Degree Program: The Coursera Guide to Best Practices

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