They came for the low cost and stayed for the experience — and the low cost. On Sunday (May 13), the first 76 graduates of the University Illinois’ Gies College of Business iMBA will receive their degrees in a convocation ceremony at the school’s Champaign campus, the culmination of two years’ hard work that came with a tuition bill that was by far the lowest of any major university’s online MBA: $22,000.
The Illinois iMBA program launched in January 2016 as a partnership with the online education platform Coursera. Styled as a “reimagining of the online MBA,” the program aims to “deliver quality affordable education at scale,” says Dean Jeffrey Brown, and encourages students to try for free single “stackable” classes that interest them rather than a linear slate of coursework, then pursue a degree if they decide they like the format and quality. It’s a model that the school says has been rated excellent or good by 98% of student participants; it certainly helps keep satisfaction levels high that classes in the iMBA are taught by the same faculty that teach Illinois’ on-campus MBA, a program ranked in the top 50 by U.S. News & World Report and nearly that by Poets&Quants. Enrollment, meanwhile, has climbed quickly and steadily, and now stands at about 1,100 students, with hundreds more to join in the fall.
For many, perhaps most, the key appeal to the Illinois iMBA is the $22,000 price tag, which was designed to open the doors of business education to a segment of the public that may never have been interested or able to afford it. “We have expanded access to high-quality graduate-level business education by reducing geographic and financial barriers,” says Brown, who was involved in the creation of the iMBA from the start, even before he became dean in August 2015. “By re-engineering how we teach, we are delivering an affordable and transformative MBA experience for talented people across the globe. It’s innovative and making a global impact.”
Brown tells Poets&Quants that for now, at least, Illinois has no plan to take advantage of its success by increasing tuition.
‘WE BROKE UNWRITTEN RULES AND WROTE NEW ONES’
The Gies College of Business iMBA’s first graduating cohort is just 26% female, but it’s diverse, with 25% international students and 31% under-represented minorities. They’ve got more work experience than you find in most programs, at an average of 12 years; and the average undergraduate GPA is respectably high, at 3.37. (No GMAT or GRE are required to gain admission to the iMBA — another huge appeal for potential applicants.) The new grads themselves — along with those currently in the program and those about to be — are part of what the college calls a “disruptive approach” to earning an MBA that has so far attracted learners from 46 states and 56 countries, “from Arkansas to Beijing,” as the school says in a news release. The just-graduated crop of MBAs range in age from 22 to 61 years old, for an average age of 37, another unusual data point.
For most, the initial appeal of the program was certainly the price tag. 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. Arshad Saiyed, executive director of online programs at the Gies College, acknowledges that the low cost brought the program to many prospective students’ attention — but says the iMBA has kept students around through a combination of high-quality instruction and successful community building. “We broke unwritten rules and wrote new ones,” he says in the school’s announcement of the convocation ceremonies. “We drew attention with a disruptive price point well below our peers, but the program’s success has hinged on the power of the University of Illinois brand and how we offer classes, how we teach learners, and the unique ways we connect students to each other and faculty.” Yuhai Xuan, academic director for the iMBA and associate professor of finance, adds that the faculty attribute the iMBA’s high retention rate — estimated to be north of 92%, an impressive data point coupled with the program’s yield rate of north of 95% — to a natural shift from trial to loyalty. They also cite the learning environment and opportunity to connect with learners from around the globe.
That’s partly what caught the eye of Christin Gomes, one of Illinois’ new iMBA grads. Gomes works in marketing and says she hopes to use her degree to not only advance her current career but also boost an entrepreneurial endeavor she plans to pursue shortly after graduation. “I was researching top MBA programs, and I saw an article from U.S. News about the program and decided to explore more,” she tells Poets&Quants. “The most important things to me in deciding on an MBA program were choosing a top-tier university with a great reputation, strong global alumni network, and the ability to specialize in marketing with a flexible approach. U of I offered all of these things at an extremely reasonable price. It was a no-brainer for me.”
A LONG-TIME PROFESSOR PRAISES THE NEW FRONTIER
The program’s on-demand and live virtual teaching methods create what one professor styles as “relevant, real-time learning,” and the iMBA’s approach allows for the development of projects that connect people from different backgrounds who have a passion for the same subject. Hence the success in community building. It’s also been a success in faculty adaptation. “It’s completely changed my approach to teaching,” says Larry DeBrock, dean emeritus, professor of finance, and professor of economics,who has taught in the College of Business for 39 years. DeBrock now teaches a weekly live video class session for the iMBA. “Our class format relies heavily on prepping all material in advance so that during class we’re not relying on static images of me standing at a lectern with a PowerPoint presentation. Instead, we may start an economic markets class looking at a sea of faces telling us what gas prices are in their city. It’s relevant, real-time learning created by real world conditions.”
Using Coursera’s mobile app, students with jobs and otherwise busy lives can complete the degree on-the-go — a feature all online degrees will likely need to have in future, says Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera.
“Universities must play an expanding role in preparing people for the demands of the workplace, and the University of Illinois is leading the way with the iMBA,” Maggioncalda says. “We have opened up the possibility of earning a highly ranked MBA by making open online courses the gateway to these degrees on a technology platform that enables unprecedented flexibility for students.”
Those massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, were integral to Zubair Ahmad’s interest in the iMBA. An engineer considering a move into product management in the tech space, Ahmad came to the iMBA through Coursera’s MOOCs. “I knew that I wanted to learn business skills and move toward a business job within the tech industry,” Ahmad tells P&Q, “so I started exploring platforms to get this knowledge in a more affordable and flexible method. I was taking MOOCs on Coursera and that is where I heard of the iMBA program. It stood out to me for three key reasons: very affordable tuition, strong brand strength of UIUC, and the flexible online delivery that incorporated live classroom sessions.”