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Look Who’s Getting The Equivalent Of An Elite MBA For Free

Laurie Pickard is getting the equivalent of an elite MBA for $1,000

Laurie Pickard is getting the equivalent of an elite MBA for $1,000

Kristof Neirinck doesn’t think like a typical banker. Bankers – like the industry they work in – tend to be conservative. As one of the members of a cohort of business students at No-Pay MBA, a support network for people who want to earn the equivalent of an MBA at a fraction of the cost, this 35-year-old Belgian banker’s approach to getting an MBA-level business education is anything but.  He’s taking a series of MOOC courses in business and sees his approach as “a dream come true from an economic vantage point,  as there is no need to take on a huge pile of debt which leverages your financial position.”

Of course, years ago it would not have been possible to take a collection of online business courses and cobble them together to replicate an MBA degree. But the growth in free online business courses from top business schools all over the world has changed that. Wharton alone now offers 18 different MOOC courses and plans to add as many as two dozen more in the next 12 months. Business schools ranging from the University of Virginia’s Darden School to the University of Michigan’s Ross School have several highly popular offerings as well.

The availability of those online courses has enabled Laurie Pickard, founder of the No-Pay MBA network, to put together a cohort of like-minded learners who have agreed to enroll in massive open online courses (MOOCs) from top business schools with the goal of taking enough of the classes to effectively have an MBA.


“They do not expect to earn actual degrees,” explains Pickard. “Instead, No-Pay MBA’s first crop of students is banking on the notion that they will find value in the education itself, and in being part of a community of learners that can serve as their version of the famous business school network. Most importantly, none of them will go a single penny into debt. Their entire education will cost less than $1,000.”

The group’s MOOC-based curriculum is a near-exact replica of many MBA programs. It includes a recommended slate of 13 core courses, three electives, four electives in a concentration, and two capstone projects. Study is self-paced, says Pickard, and students expect to finish in about two years.

Besides the missing degree, perhaps the biggest difference from traditional programs is price. Students are advised to budget $1,000, the same figure that made headlines for Pickard, who was first profiled on Poets&Quants in January of 2014, when her approach to getting an MBA education on the cheap went viral. While a portion of that $1,000 budget goes towards No-Pay MBA’s monthly membership fees, more than half is meant to go toward fees for course certificates from MOOC platforms, or to pay for supplemental content from sites like Lynda, which charges for access to its courses.


Says Pickard, “The idea behind No-Pay MBA is that we’re not raising the bar much from ‘free,’ which is where the internet in general and MOOCs in particular have set it. But even at a price less than 1/100th what MBA students in selective programs expect to spend, the goal here is to otherwise replicate the MBA experience  – and its benefits – in a virtual environment, including courses, but also group projects, internships, guest speakers, and mentoring.”

Who’s enrolling in the effort? While Pickard says there is no “typical” No-Pay MBA profile, students come from five continents and a wide variety of industry backgrounds but share some common characteristics. All are highly self-motivated and unafraid to take a risk with an as-yet untested brand of business education,  she says.

Most of the learners in her network have significant industry experience. Take Nick Switzer, for example, who began his career as a medical device engineer at Stryker Corporation and has risen through the ranks to become an Advanced Sourcing Engineer and a member of Stryker’s senior staff.


While most students have completed bachelor’s’ degrees and many hold advanced degrees, not all members come with the educational background that conventional MBA programs require. Take, for example, Justin Strohschein, a Canadian national whose current base is in Guangzhou, China. As Justin explains, “When I was young, some successful people encouraged me to attend university, while others encouraged me to find myself before pursuing a formal education. Weighing my options I decided not to pursue post-secondary education at that stage of my life; instead I began to develop my interpersonal and problem-solving skills.”

The lack of a formal bachelor’s degree doesn’t seem to have hurt Strohschein’s career in the slightest. He has worked in sales, advertising, and client relations for companies including Yellow Pages, Apple Canada, and Deloitte. Likewise, he isn’t concerned about going a non-traditional route for his graduate education. “This program allows me to learn from reputable professors and like-minded students from anywhere in the world. At the end of my journey, I will have the knowledge from a variety of disciplines without the debt that typically accompanies an MBA program.”

What makes Pickard’s idea unusual is that its value proposition for students is based largely on being part of a learning community – not on the value of the content (which is free) or the value of a credential (which No-Pay MBA doesn’t provide, beyond a simple certificate of completion). Pickard has also developed a way to to guide future employers to an online educational portfolio, which shows evidence of the skills they have developed.


Founder Pickard is unapologetic about the fact that the lack of a formal degree might be a deal-breaker for many prospective business students. “If people are going for the triple crown – hoping to transition industry, company, and functional role all at once –  I tell them they may be better off enrolling in a traditional business school. But if they already have one or two of those things nailed down, they may not need a $200,000 piece of paper.”

To read profiles of incoming No-Pay MBA students – along with their thoughts on non-traditional business education – click the student links below.

Tingxue (Pauline) Chen, Bellevue, WA

Nick Switzer, Campbell, CA

Hillary Strobel, Los Angeles, CA

Christopher Nguyen, Honolulu, Hawaii

Justin Strohschein, Guangzhou, China




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.