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.

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