When to level up: moving from an online course to an online degree

online mooc_degree

Lisa Garber

Program Manager, Population and Health Sciences

Online learning is more popular than ever. Chances are, you’ve tried at least one online course to explore a new interest or develop a specific skill. Sometimes courses like these can even help you discover a passion for a field that you never you never knew you had.  

The University of Michigan School of Public Health, for example, currently offers over a dozen massive open online courses on Coursera. Anyone can enroll to learn to improve community health, mitigate environmental hazards, address health inequities, explore maternal and child health, hone health communication skills, and advocate for environmental justice.

What You Need to Pursue Michigan Public Health’s Online MPH
  • Bachelor’s degree in any field
  • Passion for public health
  • Science and math experience (e.g., biology, statistics)
  • Communication and time management skills
  • Commitment to multiple courses over multiple semesters

Courses like these, taught by expert faculty, can prepare you for more advanced study and help you decide if deeper learning could benefit your career.

If you can’t get enough of the material, you picture yourself doing this work full-time, and you can handle the time and financial investment, it might be time to pursue a full Master of Public Health degree program.

So, how do you generally decide when to level up from an online course to a full degree program? 

Understand the Differences

It’s important to prepare for the differences between a single course, series, or specialization and committing to a full degree program. While you may have taken a course to help you boost your knowledge, build a skill, learn about a new field, or prepare for a new project at work, enrolling in a degree program can help you take your career to a whole new level. Degree programs involve many interconnected courses that are designed for advanced learning in a specific professional area, and should prepare you for improved job prospects, career advancement or changes, and salary increases. 

When you take a non-degree course, you can expect to study on your own time, and may adjust deadlines as needed. The course is usually designed to be asynchronous and provide quick automated feedback so you can gauge your own mastery of the material. This is usually a short-term commitment for one course or a small series, and is either free or low-cost. 

Online degree programs are also designed to be flexible, often with working professionals or distance learners in mind. You can expect to be able to fit videos and readings into your personal schedule, which often means nights and weekends. However, a high-quality program will be interactive and challenging. Expect to regularly engage with content experts and peers, meet assignment deadlines, and earn official letter grades towards an accredited degree. 

Determine Your ROI

These differences really denote the most important decision factor: more effort equals more reward. Consider the resources - finances, time, and effort - you are prepared to devote to get the best return on your educational investment. 

Online degree programs typically involve university tuition, and it’s reasonable to expect the return to scale with your investment. Do your research about the career opportunities in the field, and how the program can help you meet your goals. Is the credential required for your next steps? Do the courses teach marketable skills that employers are looking for? For example, Michigan Public Health’s online MPH degree includes foundational learning in skills like coding in SAS or R, health communication strategies, and sustainability in public health. In addition to the specific learning objectives, enrolling in a degree program may afford you access to valuable student services such as career counseling, workshops, and alumni networking opportunities that improve the total ROI. 

Consider Timing

Finally, you’ll need to consider when the right time is for you to level up. 

Are you in a position professionally and academically for this to be beneficial? Most of our students have some professional experience, and know they are looking for a specific career change, to enhance their current role, or to add a credential and secure a promotion. Some have taken additional external courses or MOOCs to prepare for the curriculum. 

Will you have the time to dedicate for as long as the program takes? At Michigan Public Health, students enroll full-time while working full-time, which requires about 20 hours of study per week over two years. While part-time study may be an option, it would extend the time to degree. 

Are you ready to start when the program starts? Our online MPH degree starts once per year in the fall term. Applications open the fall beforehand so that you have plenty of time to prepare your application and receive support from our admissions experts.

Degree Program Consideration Checklist

If you check “yes” on these criteria, it might be time to consider pursuing an online degree!

  __ You are passionate about the subject area

  __ The credential offers you potential to start a new career or advance in your field

  __ Required courses and electives offer marketable skills

  __ You are academically prepared for the curriculum

  __ You have the resources to invest in multiple courses over multiple semesters

  __ Expected career opportunities will provide a return on your investment

About the Author

lisa_gLisa Garber, M.A. 

Lisa is a the Program Manager for the Master of Public Health degree program in Population and Health Sciences. She works directly with current and prospective graduate students to help them identify their goals and plan a path to achieve those goals utilizing the online MPH curriculum. Lisa prioritizes the student experience and works to encourage students to pursue the degree and plan that are the right fit for their unique needs.