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Is Illinois’ ‘iMBA’ The Future Of B-School?

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Business has pioneered an accredited online MBA in partnership with Coursera

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Business has pioneered an accredited online MBA in partnership with Coursera

The average 2016 college graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, according to government statistics, up 6% from the year before; for MBAs, that number is often double, or more. Overall, Americans are carrying more than $1.3 trillion in student debt — a burden that has become such a drag on the economy, it’s a staple in the stump speech of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has proposed allocating billions for student loan forgiveness and providing benefits to more than 60% of borrowers — some 25 million graduates. Amid this national conversation on the affordability of college, a jaundiced view has begun to prevail of the viability of the most expensive degrees in law, medicine, and business.

You don’t have to go far to find academics who believe that MBA degrees will have to get cheaper in the near future, at least those that aren’t from truly elite programs, which will always draw top talent, regardless. And you don’t have to look further than the rise in respectable and popular online MBA programs to see how a new landscape may form around the idea of cheaper, easier, yet high-quality online MBA learning opportunities. One school, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Business, has taken the idea a step beyond its peers, offering an accredited “iMBA” for the low price of around $22,000.

Illinois moved beyond the standard practice of simply putting offline programs into online formats, school officials say, rethinking the approach to online programs in a way that makes the online world a better learning environment than you get from simply copying the offline classroom. Partnering with Coursera to offer that platform’s first accredited online MBA, Illinois launched the iMBA in January 2016 and welcomed its second cohort in August. Of 270 students enrolled in this first year, 265 are still with the program; the school hopes that in five years as many as 1,500 could be enrolled at once.

“We’re proud of our efforts,” says Raj Echambadi, senior associate dean of strategic innovation at Illinois, which is now accepting applications for a new cohort to start in January 2017. “We believe that the iMBA is a transformative online experience. Ultimately it’s about value to the learner and their employers. With the iMBA, employers get leadership-level and leadership-ready grads, and simply people who have a rich education that’s also immensely practical.

“$22,000 is a fairly amazing thing,” Echambadi adds, citing next year’s 150th anniversary of the school that was the catalyst for the launch of the iMBA. “It takes us back to our land-grant roots, if you will, of democratizing access, democratizing education around the world.”

EXPANDING THE CONVERSATION

Raj Echambadi, Illinois College of Business senior associate dean of strategic innovation

Raj Echambadi, Illinois College of Business senior associate dean of strategic innovation

It’s simply easier to enroll in business school and take classes online, which is why so many of Illinois’ students are from outside the U.S. — more than 17% representing 23 countries, particularly China, India, and Brazil. The convenience of not having to relocate and keep a rigid class schedule means the Illinois iMBA also is effectively drawing executive MBA candidates, as demonstrated by its high average age (37) and work experience (12 years). But its chief appeal is clearly cost. Illinois’ iMBA costs a fraction of a degree from an elite school, where the median cost is roughly $171,000 and can break the $200,000 mark at the far end of the scale. Illinois’ own residential two-year MBA costs more than $100,000.

Now compare the iMBA to other online programs. It costs only a quarter of the $80,000 charged by the University of Maryland’s online MBA and one-sixth the $118,080 price of the online MBA at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. Temple University’s top-rated online MBA charges nearly $60,000, according to U.S. News and World Report, while at the University of North Carolina, the online degree will set you back about $100,000.

The more people who can afford it, the more will take it — or at least inquire about it. Because the program is “stackable” — meaning a student can enter it at any time and eventually build it into an MBA if he or she wants, stop at just a certificate, or leave it at one course — nearly a million visitors have checked out the Illinois iMBA in the last 11 months, with 260,000 active learners taking some part of the course and 27,000 earning a certificate. Such an “expanded conversation” fuels a self-rewarding cycle, Kevin Hartman, an instructor for the iMBA’s digital marketing analytics courses, said this summer in an Illinois College of Business magazine article.

“That expanded conversation benefits everyone,” Hartman said. “When you have thousands of students from around the world in a course, you have the potential to have many diverse voices. That brings great energy and perspective to the conversation. Students don’t hesitate to challenge one another or the theories or ideas being presented. The chat rooms provide even more opportunities to engage and explain and enhance the conversation.”

REDEFINING WHAT AN MBA MEANS, WHO AN MBA STUDENT IS

The curriculum for Illinois’ iMBA is organized as “specializations,” each of which consists of three individual classes and a capstone project. Students must complete 18 courses or 72 credits; the program can be completed in 23 to 36 months, depending on how long it takes them to complete four required core specializations (Strategic Leadership & Management, Managerial Economics and Business Analysis, Value Chain Management, and Financial Management), choose and complete two of three “Focus Area” specializations (Global Challenges in Business, Entrepreneurship & Innovation, and Digital Marketing), and complete any two of the specialization capstones as well as an integrated capstone final project.

Perhaps most appealing: No GRE or GMAT is required to apply to the Illinois iMBA. One need only a bachelor’s degree and three or more years of work experience. (Interested in an online Master of Management instead? Illinois and Coursera offer that, too  — also for $22,000.)

“We did not just take a face-to-face MBA degree and put it online,” says Echambadi, who is also the Alan J. and Joyce D. Baltz professor of business administration at Illinois. “We created a degree with online experiences that was new and unique. At a broader level, we have created a new definition of what a global MBA means. We have redefined who an MBA student is.”