New graduate program in data science shows tremendous growth and proves popular with global audience

Three-and-a-half years ago, a small team of CU Boulder faculty, staff and course designers began building a master's degree program they believed potential graduate students were yearning for: flexible, affordable and in a field with significant job growth. 

This month, as the team surveyed five sessions of enrollment results for the online Master of Science in Data Science program, they knew they got it right. The program averaged 750 enrollments for the first three sessions, expanded to 800 enrollments in the fourth session and jumped to over 1,000 enrollments in the current session. 

Better yet, the completion rate over those four sessions climbed from 67 percent in the first session to 74 percent in the third session. The fifth session is still in progress. 

“The enrollments are outstanding,” Dean of the Graduate School Scott Adler said. “It is just going up and up. It is far ahead of the pace we expected.” 

The Master of Science in Data Science online degree program at CU Boulder distinguishes itself in the graduate school marketplace by meeting the needs of students who want a degree from a Tier 1 research institution but require the utmost flexibility in how they get it. Students can participate in the program from anywhere in the world—there are currently students in 57 countries—and unlike traditional graduate programs that start once a year in the fall, these online students can usually begin classes within a few weeks of enrolling.

Courses are offered through the Coursera platform and no transcripts or traditional graduate school applications are required for admission. Students are admitted to the degree program after attaining a GPA of 3.0 or higher in a series of three one-credit pathway courses. 

Since the end of fall 2021, 315 students gained admission to the master's program by completing the pathway courses.

“CU is a pioneer in the area of performance-based admission,’’ Jane Wall, faculty director of the Data Science program said. “All courses have a not-for-credit version, so students can do the coursework and then upgrade to the full degree program. All work completed in the non-credit version transfers with you.”

After completing the 30 credit program, students will get a master's degree in data science conferred by CU Boulder, indistinguishable from traditional in-person graduate programs. Graduates are eligible to walk in Commencement, should they desire. 

“It can be hard to get into graduate school and we’ve removed the obstacles,”’ Wall said. “I love it that we’ve opened the program up to anyone to get this degree. Students can start learning not-for-credit anytime and then upgrade it. Pay as you go, per credit. No big check upfront. You don’t have to be wealthy.” 

Demand for data science skills is so high that last fall CU Boulder added an in-person version of the Master of Data Science program, with 55 students in the first class. A graduate certificate in data science is the latest program offering. 

"We provide data science skills to learners in multiple stages,” ​​interim Executive Director & Assistant Vice Provost for Academic and Learning Initiatives Randall Fullington said “Beginners can learn foundational data science skills, expand those skills in a graduate certificate, and then finish their degree as a data scientist specializing in areas such as machine learning and natural language processing."

John McKay, a student who is completing the program while living on a boat off Vancouver Island, British Columbia, said the flexibility means everything to him.

“I live and work in remote and wild parts of the country, which means sometimes no Internet (or even power!). Having the ability to set my own schedule and interact remotely allows me to keep exploring the west coast while I’m studying,” McKay said. “I’m not aware of any other program from a prominent university that will let me live this lifestyle I love while I pursue a Master’s degree.” 

Mattison Hineline, a student living in Malaga, Spain, said she values the opportunity the program is providing for her to make a career change. As someone without programming experience, she appreciates the support she gets from the student online community via Slack, she said.

“This degree is the best option for those who come from non-technical backgrounds and who want to learn on their own schedule,’’ Hineline said. 

Maki Villano, a student in Quezon City, Philippines, said he enjoys the community he has found within the degree program. "I always look forward to the student Happy Hours where we gather online to celebrate hurdling another session! Yaay! We hold Happy Hours on weekends following the last day of the session. It is a venue for us students to virtually hang out and unwind. I'm delighted to hear the voices and see the faces of my fellow students, especially those with whom I mostly interact asynchronously over Slack. During Happy Hours, we talk about pretty much anything under the sun, although half the time we talk about our experiences with the courses and how our previous sessions went."

“The degree’s innovative performance-based admissions pathway is a significant step in helping more students build sought-after data science skills,” Chief Content Officer, Coursera Betty Vandenbosch said. “We’re grateful for our ongoing partnership as we continue to expand our portfolio of performance-based degrees from CU Boulder. We look forward to seeing how the upcoming Master of Engineering in Engineering Management on Coursera will enable even more students to develop career-ready skills.”

Learn more about the Master of Science in Data Science and/or send an email to