Why Pay When You Can Get The MBA For Free?

Coursera's homepage

Coursera’s homepage

The University of Illinois’ College of Business at Urbana-Champaign did the unthinkable this week. It agreed to put the entire MBA curriculum of a new and innovative program online for free.

Yes, the school says the actual degree would cost about $20,000, which is about a third or less of the cost of online MBAs from universities of similar stature (see Breakthrough: A Top 50 MBA For $20,000). But that’s only if you want the piece of parchment paper that no one ever asks for anyway. Otherwise, you can take the complete degree in 18 or more separate courses at no cost whatsoever.

You read that correctly.

That’s quite a revolutionary offering from a Top 50 U.S. business school. As a result, Illinois will become the first school to give away the complete content of an MBA degree for nothing. So the big question is why wouldn’t students just take the program for free, put it on their resume, and say—very justifiably—that they have an MBA education?


It turns out that very issue was the subject of much discussion among the members of a University of Illinois task force that did the spade work that led to the MBA degree on the Coursera platform. As the news industry quickly discovered after giving its content away for free, few readers were willing to pay for it when some organizations put up paywalls.

The similarities between the news media and higher education appear valid. “We studied the news industry carefully, as they have faced many similar issues in the past decade,” concedes Raj Echambadi, associate dean of outreach and engagement at Illinois’ College of Business.

The school concluded, as have many media organizations, that ultimately the cat has already been let out of the bag. “The truth of the matter is that content is available out there,” adds the Illinois official. “Every month, Poets&Quants put together a list of best MOOC courses available for learners to take. Also, it is possible that employers may look at newer ways of whether a potential employee has certain skills rather than using a university-issued credential. Could third-party certifications become more valuable in certain scenarios? We thought about these issues carefully. We took a nuanced approach.”

Raj Echambadi of the University of Illinois' College of Business

Raj Echambadi of the University of Illinois’ College of Business


That approach may well be too “nuanced” to protect the school’s investment in content, but the school smartly made sure there is a difference in getting the entire MBA curriculum for free or paying for it. Those who pay not only get the actual degree, including the right to say they were admitted to the University of Illinois through a selection process. They also gain access to a higher engagement platform that promises a deeper level of contact between and among students and faculty.

Still, one of the biggest challenges in cobbling together the equivalent of an MBA from available MOOC courses at such elite business schools as Wharton, Stanford, the University of Virginia and others is that those one-off courses fail to build on each other. They can’t really be taken in a thoughtful sequence that leads to the educational journey a student would get on campus. The Illinois offering, in its “stackable” building blocks of knowledge, solves that problem for free learners very nicely.

Students can take any of eight specializations–each a three-or-four course integrated offering–in such core MBA areas as strategic management, improving business finances and operations, leadership and management, entrepreneurship and innovation, business tools for successful execution, business environments and corporate responsibility, and digital marketing. The successful completion of the Illinois iMBA, as it has been dubbed, requires the taking of six of these eight silo-breaking specializations.

  • Dmitri Kapshai

    Some part of the courses starts to appear and Actually it is not free. But you can see that their prices coming not like a full-package-only. So you can split charges depending on your needs.
    Even if it’s difficult to believe that the MBA can be achieved purely following on-line courses , it gives a very good opportunity to learn for a lot of people. As MBA can have a various goals for each person , that on-line project has some new approach to an open project: 1.you get access to a very organized learning project, which is actually is very hard to program your self 2.you have a variety of choice what you can do next with that.- try your self before you engage your-self for a full time MBA, prepare yourself for a full-time MBA. -get a vision of what you need and progress on your project. 3-you do not need to pay all MBA fees because here it’s up to you if you want content, knowledge or even more.It looks hard to believe that it can substitute a full time MBA for everyone but i’m sure that it will help a lot of people out their to move forward. 4. you don’t have to be accepted to get started, which is actually cool, so you can improve yourself before making the step – etc.
    A lot of good ideas! let’s hope it will demonstrate its value in practice.

  • What the University of Illinois is doing with this offer is disaggregating elements of an MBA experience: content, instruction, and certification.

    Access to MBA-level content has been available for a tiny fraction of the cost of an MBA for decades. The leading academics at the world’s leading business schools having been writing books for a long time. Anyone keen on accessing the ideas that these academics share in class could always buy their books. In 2015, MOOCs and other technology-facilitated platforms that offer access to content have made this process a multi-media and, potentially, more engaging process than reading a book but this new form of access hasn’t created a new opportunity, just a refinement of existing opportunities.

    So, if the real “value add” of the MBA process is not access to content, we come down to instruction and certification. Instruction adds value in that it assists in the comprehension and assimilation of the content. Certification (which requires the setting of standards and assessment) adds value as this is the means to put “MBA” after your name and demonstrate to third parties (e.g., employers) that you have met certain standards with respect to mastery of the content.

    Another label for this University of Illinois initiative is a form of competency-based learning. That, too, has been around for a while. Nonetheless, I believe that this initiative is noteworthy as it is a step in increasing the pressure on all business schools to understand the value they create for students.

  • Marty Jones

    It’s difficult to see the differentiator. If there actually is one.

  • EB

    What do students say when asked what their GPA was while obtaining this MBA education? In addition to the network, paying gives you a certain credibility backed by a transcript. That doesn’t mean it’s worth paying $20K for it when you can access it for free, but is something to think about.

  • JohnAByrne

    You pay for the degree and access to the higher engagement platform.

  • Marty Jones

    The content is free but you pay $20k for the link?

  • where’s the link to the application?

  • JohnAByrne

    Actually, the last handicapping Sandy did was published on April 22nd, just 17 days ago. You can see it here:


    The newest one will be published on Monday. If you want to submit your stats, I would do so when the latest in the series is published in two days.

    Thanks for asking.

  • Matthew

    Hey John. Great read!

    I actually have a random question for you. Do you know if Sandy still does the “Handicapping Your Odd” pieces? It appears the most recent iteration he did was from last year? If he is in fact still doing them, where would i go to submit my stats?