Sarah Matthews fully acknowledges she is more competitive than her husband Jeremy. So, when he joined her in the online Master of Business Administration program at the University of Southern Indiana after she completed just one course, those competitive juices started to flow.
"It came out of the blue," Sarah said. "I had been talking about going back for a long time, and he kept telling me to go. He had never really mentioned wanting to go himself, so I was really surprised.
"After I took that class and he was able to see how I managed all of my normal things, he said, 'I'm thinking about going back, too.' I said, 'Are you serious?' He said, 'Well, I can't have you have a higher degree than me.' He was joking, but he had just signed up and was really excited."
Things have worked out very well and added some good-natured fun to the couple's relationship as they balance school with full-time jobs and raising three kids — Ashton (13) and Hannah (11), from Sarah's previous marriage, and Ryan (3). Jeremy also has two children from his previous marriage, Ricky (21) and Ashlyn (20).
"I don't like to be one-upped, but I'm not as competitive as Sarah," Jeremy said. "I'm a little bit different. I definitely want the 'A,' and I don't want Sarah to beat me with a grade, but she's the one who follows me around and asks me what I got on my last assignment. She wants to make sure to compare it to what she got."
Not surprisingly, the couple's one-upmanship has helped lead to sparkling 4.0 GPAs for both.
"Honestly, it gives us a conversation piece," Sarah said. "Both of us have different perspectives on it, so it's kind of neat to talk through things and look at questions and problems a different way."
Although they did not start the online MBA program at the same time, Jeremy and Sarah do have a common goal.
"I think the bulk of the people that work for me probably have their master's degrees," said Jeremy, who is informatics director at Aetna in Evansville, Indiana. "These are incredibly intelligent people who are very highly skilled and very highly educated. I work in an environment where life is continuing education."
Sarah, who is a senior business development coordinator at Deaconess Health System in Evansville, also wanted to reach the same level of education as many of her coworkers.
"To advance in my career, I have to have a master's degree," she said. "My employer really motivated me, too. I talked to them about it when I interviewed. I asked them what my opportunities would be and how supportive they would be of me earning a master's degree, and they were very supportive of it."
Both Jeremy and Sarah also receive some tuition reimbursement from their employers to help make the program even more affordable, which made it a win-win situation for both of them.
"I enjoy the learning anyway," Jeremy said. "A lot of times Sarah and I take the same classes so we can study together. It doesn't conflict with our ability to be parents. It's also so cost-effective and a shared experience."
Additionally, Sarah liked the fact that USI offers GMAT and GRE waivers for many students seeking enrollment in its online MBA programs.
"As an adult going back to school, I found taking a test for placement a little bit intimidating because I hadn't been in school for so long," she said. "The price was also good. I price-shopped a couple of universities through word of mouth. It was all very positive with USI. Several people who had gone through USI through my employer were very happy with it."
Roads Less Travelled
Both Jeremy and Sarah, who were married in 2014 after being introduced by one of Jeremy's aunts, took unusual higher education paths to arrive in the USI online MBA program.
Sarah attended school in England before moving into a paralegal degree program at Vincennes University in 2002, followed by a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Maryland University College in 2010.
"I took this job in business development in 2016," Sarah said. "I've always been in sales and relationship-type roles. To be promoted into a leadership role, I have to have a master's. I balance that in between the health administration and the MBA.
"I have 10-plus years in healthcare experience, so I'd rather focus more on the business aspect so that I have more options. I work in healthcare, but to open up more doors, I thought the MBA was the best fit for me."
After he graduated from high school in Henderson, Kentucky, in 1993, Jeremy attended Vanderbilt University as a freshman and the University of Kentucky as a sophomore before he opted to leave school to work full time. Jeremy returned to college and earned a Bachelor of Integrated Studies (BIS) from Murray State University in 2012.
"I've always been a computer person," Jeremy said. "I've always been a data person. I started as a computer programmer. I've held a whole lot of different roles, but most of my roles have a data component to them."
In Perfect Harmony
Even with both of them enrolled in the online MBA program, Jeremy and Sarah have a study schedule that works well with their parenting duties. Jeremy also often has to travel for work a couple of times each month, so the online flexibility is essential.
"Sarah likes to do her work in early evenings," Jeremy said. "A lot of times in the early evening, she's doing her reading or homework, and I'm playing with the kids, giving the three-year-old a bath, just spending time with the family.
"She'll finish her homework, go to bed at nine o'clock and watch TV. I'm more of a night owl. I'll start my homework at nine o'clock and work to 11 o'clock or midnight. That's the natural cycle of when I do my homework."
Sarah said she occasionally does some schoolwork after the kids go to bed, too, although she believes it is important for them to see the hard work their parents are dedicating to education.
"When I decided to go back to school, my husband was a little nervous on how I was going to balance the current demands in life that we already had, but my kids were so excited to see me back in school and to see my excitement," Sarah said. "It's a teaching moment for them, that school is very important for our future. I'm able to balance my personal life and my career as well as all of my coursework."
Jeremy also believes they are leading their children in the direction of higher education by example.
"Parenting is modeling by doing," he said. "You can say stuff all you want, but you parent by letting kids see what you're doing. When you put emphasis on school by going back and getting your master's degree, the kids are going to see that and realize that's what's important and enables us to do the things we do and have the things we have. Education is only going to benefit them."
That has even had an effect on Ashlyn, who is a sophomore at Western Kentucky University.
"It gives her something to look up to with us while she's in it and experiencing it," Sarah said. "It's like, 'Here I am doing this, and my parents are also doing this while they're working.' It pushes her, I think, to try a little harder."
Jeremy and Sarah have both found the online MBA curriculum applicable to their careers.
"I had [MNGT 611:] Leadership Skills and Innovation with Dr. Jack Smothers," Sarah said. "He had us develop an app for whatever we were trying to promote at the exact same time my employer was creating something, so I got to use some of the ideas we were working on.
"At work, they also got to use some of the ideas I was working on to incorporate into our project. That's been the case in a lot of my classes. I'm in [MNGT: 681] Strategic and International Management right now. Same thing — I can tie it into my work."
So far, Jeremy has enjoyed the accounting and marketing courses the most.
"It wasn't so much I'm a marketing buff, but one of the things I do at Aetna is support a team of data scientists who do marketing and analytics," he said. "By taking that marketing course, I have more clarity about what my customers are trying to achieve, so I can better help them. It's one of those things where I really enjoyed the course because it makes me that much better at work. I definitely learn very valuable things with each master's class I take."
One additional benefit of the program for Sarah has been the relationships she has developed.
"I've made friends in the classes that I've met through the course who are not local," Sarah said. "We still keep in contact, and we've even joined each other's social media pages. It's neat how even though it's an online course, I'm able to find people to be friends with, keep in contact with and have somebody to talk about the program with."
Plus, the flexibility of the program has been even more significant for Jeremy with his travel and schedule and because he can take seven weeks off when his work demands increase.
"As I move through the program and have periods of work where it's extremely busy, I'll forgo taking a class," he said. "My goal is to finish in a 24-month [time] frame. It's nice to have that flexibility. I can take one class off and it's not like I'm taking a whole semester. I can take off seven weeks, not three months."
Even though Sarah will complete the online MBA program before Jeremy, the couple plan to walk the graduation stage together.
"We didn't ever go to our graduations for the other degrees we got, so we're going to do this one together," Sarah said. "It's going to be our thing."
And while they have developed a bit of a "rivalry," Jeremy is happy Sarah paved the way for him to return to the higher education path.
"Most of my friends look at me and say, 'How do you do it?'" he said. "They have younger kids, so they say, 'How in the world do you spend the time to do this?' or 'How do you find the time at night in order to take these classes?'
"I say, 'Look, you just find it. You can take 10 hours out of the week when you're sitting in front of the TV watching Shark Tank. You could be learning about something new and getting that master's degree. You can find that time, if that's something that's important to you.'"
Of course, if Sarah can finish a point or two higher than Jeremy in a course, she'll be pretty happy, too.
"Jeremy is extremely smart, so if I can get a better grade than him, I like to shove it in his face," she said. "I like to say I beat him."