While the University of Pennsylvania has long offered flexible degree options for nontraditional students, the continued push toward online graduate degrees has expanded the reach of the programs and helped to alleviate some of the logistical challenges such students face.
In the past, individuals that were older and had full-time jobs would have to quit work, relocate, or pay higher tuitions in order to obtain a new degree at Penn.
But after the recent announcement of the online Master of Computer and Information Technology (MCIT), Penn now offers four online or hybrid master’s programs: In addition to the MCIT, there are the Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership, the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP), and the Master of Health Care Innovation.
While the MCIT program is completely online, the other three programs are “hybrid” because they require occasional travels to campus, in addition to online work.
While the MCIT is not explicitly geared toward nontraditional students, many of the applicants to the program this year are at least 10 years out from their undergraduate degrees and seek to either switch or advance their careers, according to Computer and Information Science professor Chris Murphy.
Unlike other programs aimed toward older individuals who are currently working, online master’s programs do not require students to relocate or leave their jobs, and tuition is often cheaper, Murphy added.
According to Murphy, MCIT students receive the same degree as on-campus students and are just as qualified.
"It’s definitely not people who couldn’t cut it on campus,” Murphy said. “They’re just in different places in their lives and this gives us a way of reaching them.”
Online and hybrid programs also meet 21st century needs for the workforce, according to Master of Applied Positive Psychology Director James Pawelski.
“We don’t live in a world where you study until you’re 22 and you’re good for the next 60 years,” Pawelski said. “I think as we’re moving further and further into the 21st century, education is particularly called upon to help people prepare [and] re-prepare in different ways.”
MAPP combines intensive online study with the requirement that students attend on-campus classes one weekend per month. The program attracts a wide variety of students interested in applying positive psychology to their professional lives, with some traveling from as far as India and Australia, Pawelski said.
For 53-year-old Chicago trial attorney and MAPP student Scott Clewis, being able to work a full-time job while participating in a rigorous academic program is an "unbelievable blessing." While MAPP can be difficult to balance with work and personal life, the program allows him to both explore his academic interests and apply them in a professional setting.
“It’s a tremendous act of multitasking and trying to work intelligently and efficiently,” Clewis said. “I would like to take what I learn in positive psychology and bring it back to the legal profession to help professionals achieve well-being and satisfaction.”