Illinois Graduates 1st Cohort From $22K iMBA

Soon-to-graduate iMBA students. Photo courtesy of Gies College of Business, University of Illinois


Zubair Ahmad wasn’t sure he would ever go back to school to get his MBA. He already had a successful engineering career in San Diego, California, and he didn’t like the idea of spending time away from his young family. But the idea of getting out of engineering and into product management kept gnawing at him. He’d been toying with the idea of getting an MBA for years, researching mostly part-time and online programs because sacrificing significant family time was a strong inhibitor to most MBA programs from reputable schools.

Zubair Ahmad. Photo courtesy of Gies College of Business, University of Illinois

There was another obstacle: cost. Tuition being what it is at most programs, Ahmad wasn’t sure he could ever afford even a part-time one. In that regard, Illinois’ iMBA was a godsend. But if Ahmad had any concerns about shortcomings in the quality of instruction in such a bargain program, he was quickly reassured.

“I loved the quality of the professors, curriculum, and classmates,” he tells Poets&Quants. “The professors are the same professors that teach on campus, and in fact are the cream of the crop of the on-campus instructors. I’d taken some online and extension classes from other institutions where the instructors are not actual university faculty and the quality of instruction is much lower; this was not the case in the iMBA. The curriculum covered a wide breadth of topics including economics, strategy, finance, operations, leadership, marketing, and innovation management. I got to work with a diverse group of classmates covering multiple industries (lawyers, dentists, accountants, engineers, marketers) from diverse locations across the country and even group members in Kazakhstan.

“I got the opportunity to transition from engineering to product management while in the program and I was able to apply the material and experiences from nearly every class. The iMBA was practically a business coach for me during this career shift.”

Ahmad says he will continue to use the knowledge he gained in the iMBA to make greater contributions and take more leadership and responsibility as a product manager. “I use my own development path as an example of the opportunities that can be realized with the iMBA,” he says. “I transitioned from engineering to product management, launched new products, and received a promotion. All of this was accomplished while still enrolled as a student in the program, without having to travel or give up entire weekends. At the same time I was able to have dinner with my family nearly every night of the week.

“Ultimately, the online program offers the lowest opportunity cost with a high net gain. And this type of success is not unique to me. Other classmates have also received promotions and transitioned into new jobs or industries while still finishing their degree.” Meanwhile, Ahmad’s young family has gotten even bigger: His second child was born during his second year in the iMBA.


Jeff Brown

Plans for the creation of the Illinois iMBA began a year or two before Jeff Brown became dean of the College of Business in August 2015. He served on a steering committee that worked with Raj Echambadi and others to ideate, brainstorm, critique, “push, prod, everything it took to get this thing done.” That involved a great deal of hard work by many people; now, with actual graduates receiving actual degrees, Brown can indulge a sense of satisfaction in what’s been accomplished. “It’s been a long road,” he says, “and it’s exciting to see us reach this stage.”

There were big unknowns, of course, in launching such a disruptively low-priced program: about student demand and the quality of applicants, about retaining students in the program, about the adaptability and retention of UIUC Gies College of Business faculty.

“This program has exceeded our expectation in every way, and that is not hyperbole, it really is true,” Brown says. “Everything about it has been higher than we would have predicted from the beginning.” The yield rate is over 95%, he points out. “We’ll make a few hundred offers, and we’ll get five people that will say no.”

Moreover, Brown says the college conservatively estimates that the iMBA’s retention rate, which is trickier to pinpoint because dropouts are harder to track — someone can stop “attending” classes but not announce their departure, for example, or return after being assumed to have dropped out — is about 92%. “Which is higher than an awful lot of face-to-face programs,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s a testament to the quality of the program, the quality of the instruction, and the sense of pride that the students bring to it. One of the biggest unknowns out there when we went down this path is, were we going to be able to create a sense of community, the network, the cohort where people were able to form those bonds that would last for the rest of their lives?

“And the answer is pretty much a resounding yes. Talk to the students and you get a really exciting sense of belonging to this group.”


Now that the program is more firmly established are any major changes in store? Brown says not expect any upheaval.

“From day we really have taken the idea of continuous improvement seriously,” he says, “so not a week goes by that we’re not adjusting a dial here and a dial there and learning and improving. I would say the next big thing for us will be to expand our course offerings. Right now, it’s kind of preprogrammed for the students — they have a little bit of choice about which course to take, but not a lot. You have six specializations, and obviously in the long run we want to offer more from which students can choose. I would expect to see in the next year or so that we would roll out at least one new specialization and maybe a couple.

“The other thing, and we haven’t made any decisions yet, but I will tell you that now that we’ve created this pretty powerful platform capable of delivering high-quality content online, we are trying to think about other ways that we can leverage that. Whether it’s life-long learning opportunities for our alumni or executive education at scale, or whether it’s providing Illinois content that can supplement or assist other schools in what they do, we’re really starting to look at this not just as a program but as a platform that we can continue to build on.”

And the cost? Will Illinois ratchet up tuition now that they’ve put themselves on the map with degree-seekers and have “literally thousands of hours of super-high-quality content recorded and catalogued”? No, Brown says — not yet. It’s still the mission of the school to keep the doors to graduate business education open to those who have otherwise been priced out.

“Obviously there is inflation, and at some point the cost isn’t going to stay at $22,000 forever,” he says. “But we don’t have any plans to make any dramatic changes to the price. We feel that we have created something here that is enormously valuable, and part of the attraction — the thing that got everybody’s attention out of the gate — was the low price.

“If we were a profit-maximizing entity, we’d price it a lot higher, because we think it’s really, really good. But part of what we’re trying to do here is, we are a land-grant institution, and we take that very seriously. And while we want this to be value-accretive to our organization, we’re not looking to maximize revenue stream from it — we’re trying to change education. We’re trying to show that there is another new model out there that can work and that can deliver affordable education at scale. We’re much more interested in the mission and the reputation-building that that generates for us, and in providing this education to a whole group of people that otherwise have not been able to do it.”


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