ASU Makes Its MBA Program Free

Amy Hillman, dean of ASU's Carey School of Business

Amy Hillman, dean of ASU’s Carey School of Business

Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business today (Oct. 14) became the first school to make its full-time MBA program completely free, with no strings attached. The decision to increase its annual intake of MBA students by 40% to a class size of 120 and to cover the full tuition and fees of every enrolled student will ultimately result in a loss of more than $20 million annually.

The big question: Is it merely a PR gimmick?

Amy Hillman, dean of the Carey School of Business, would certainly refute that notion. She’s saying the tuition-free MBA would more freely allow graduates to pursue startups and work in the social sector.

HOPEFUL THAT ASU WILL GET “MORE HIGH-QUALITY APPLICANTS’ TO THE CAREY SCHOOL

“If someone has a great start-up idea, and they know they would be more successful in their venture if they had the skills and networking that an MBA would give them, they might be concerned about spending the money because it takes away from the capital needed for the start-up venture,” Hillman says in a statement. “We’re very hopeful that we’ll get more high-quality applicants as a result of this program, and the kinds of people who might think they can’t pursue a top MBA program.”

Applicants who apply to Carey for admission to its full-time MBA program next fall would be eligible for the free deal. Tuition and fees for the full-time MBA program are $54,000 for Arizona residents, $87,000 for non-residents and $90,000 for international students. If the typical mix of students enter the program, it would cost Carey slightly more than $10.5 million a year, or well over $20 million annually when first and second-year students are counted.

Hillman says the funding for what it is calling the “Forward Focus” MBA program will largely come from the original endowment from William Polk Carey, the real-estate investor whose foundation donated a $50 million naming gift to the business school in 2003. “His investment in us can allow us to invest in these students,” Hillman says, who adds that ASU is committed to the free deal beyond next year. “I think this really is the path forward.”

‘WE ARE PRICING OURSELVES OUT OF THE MARKET’

The novel offer comes at a time when an increasing number of educators are saying the MBA degree is overpriced. Betsy Ziegler, chief innovation officer for Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, recently told a conference of business school officials that “we are pricing ourselves out of the market.” She cited annual increases in tuition of 4.5% in the past five years far outstripping increases in MBA starting salaries which have risen by only 1.6% a year. “Demand and supply is misaligned,” Ziegler said. “The power is shifting to the student. The expectation that they will pick reputation over everything else is fading.” Ziegler made the remarks at Sept 22 conference in Chicago sponsored by the AACSB, the accrediting body for business schools.

Also last month, Rochester University’s Simon School of Business slashed the cost of its two-year MBA program by 13.6% to $92,000 from $106,440. Dean Andrew Ainslie also said he believes that Simon’s tuition costs were higher than the costs for the MBA programs at several peer schools and needed adjustment. “We have all gotten into this habit of upping our prices 3% to 5% a year and then separately being worried about attracting the best students,” he told Poets&Quants. “So everybody has been simultaneously raising their scholarship support.”

In the past five years, many of the nation’s top business schools have been in what several deans call “an arm’s race” to use scholarships to get the best students to attend their MBA programs. Scholarship dollars range from a high of $31.5 million a year at Harvard Business School to $3 million a year at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business. The ASU plan clearly ups the ante on the scholarship wars.

For ASU, the free-MBA deal will further cement the university’s reputation as one of the more innovator players in higher education. More importantly, perhaps, it also will give the school a significant boost in the rankings. Carey’s MBA program is currently ranked 41st by Poets&Quants and generally competes in a peer group of such public universities as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Iowa, and the University of Georgia—all U.S. schools int the top 50. By offering free tuition, MBA applications should soar and the school should be able to make itself much more selective than its current 25% acceptance rate and should be able to enroll a substantially more impressive group of students with higher undergraduate grade point averages and GMAT scores.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.