In addition to its undergraduate program, which has about 3,100 students and which P&Q for Undergrads ranked No. 20 in 2018, Illinois Gies offers seven specialized master’s degrees and two online specialized master’s. But it’s the iMBA that has really put the school in the spotlight in recent years. At $22,000 — a price which includes all fees and materials, and which Brown says is not slated to go up in the next couple of years — the Illinois iMBA is about one-third the cost of most online MBAs and a fraction of the cost of a degree from such elite programs as Indiana Kelley, UNC Kenan-Flagler, or Carnegie Mellon Tepper.
Which pretty much explains why the iMBA has grown from an initial class of fewer than 300 in 2016 to more than 2,600 today. Applications to the iMBA have nearly tripled – from 1,100 in the year after the program was launched to a projected 3,200 in 2019. Affordability also explains the diversity of interest Illinois has seen in its online offering. Around 21% of iMBA students are international, representing 91 countries, with India, Canada, China, Nigeria, and Mexico the top countries outside the U.S. Forty-eight states and Washington, D.C. are represented in the iMBA ranks, too (25% of students are from Illinois). Meantime, the program boasts an impressive 92% retention rate.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that students are coming to the program with already impressive resumes: Average work experience for iMBA students is 11 1/2 years, and 67 of the Fortune 100 companies are represented in the current student body, including Apple, FedEx, Google, Lockheed-Martin, and Verizon. In three short years, the program has graduated 342 students.
“Our iMBA is the most innovative, highest-value MBA of any kind anywhere in the world,” Dean Brown says. “Because it is online and offered at an affordable cost, it creates access to high-quality, high-impact business education for larger numbers of talented people. It fulfills our land-grant mission and serves our state spectacularly well. At the same time, by being fully online, it extends and deepens our reach as a global player — ensuring a worldwide reach for our college and alumni network.”
BREAKING DOWN THE iMBA PROGRAM STRUCTURE
iMBA content is “career-curated,” Brown says, meaning it is structured to be used in the real world. It is comprised of a series of business specializations, each including three classes and a capstone project. The specializations typically blend content across academic departments. The content comes from across the Gies College, as well as from other parts of the university and from enterprise partners. Some content will be offered as short courses rather than full specializations, giving students additional flexibility to customize the program. For example, the school is developing a course that combines business and technology.
The iMBA is constantly evolving, Brown says. The program is currently planning the introduction of immersion projects that take place physically inside companies and other host organizations — the latter a way for students to customize the iMBA to their preferences and needs. However, participation in these projects comes with an extra charge.
Additionally, after a successful pilot in Brazil last year, Illinois has added a global immersion option to the iMBA — what the school describes as “real-world action learning experiences done in teams of four to five, lasting 10 days.” This year the immersion is being offered in Germany. The iMBA also will feature a series of regional and local micro-immersion options for students in various regional locations in the U.S., in which they are embedded in two-week capstone projects that culminate in a three-day micro- immersion with the partner companies.
How much can the iMBA grow in the next two to three years? “We’ve made modifications to technology and as long as we can keep doing that, we’ll keep growing,” Brown says, “but we will never grow at the expense of quality or at the expense of the excellence of the program or the brand.”
DESPITE RANKINGS SNAFU, STRONG SATISFACTION RATING FOR THE ILLINOIS iMBA
The iMBA has had one big hiccup: In 2017 it was dropped — at the school’s request — from the U.S. News ranking of online programs after placing 29th in the nation the year before. According to a former associate dean, Illinois submitted requested data to U.S. News in October 2016, when the iMBA was less than a year old and therefore not qualified to be ranked. Nevertheless, to the surprise of school officials, U.S. News ranked it. The school gave the publication incomplete data and, upon discovering the error, requested removal and received it. However, honesty hasn’t been rewarded, as the iMBA remains unranked by U.S. News, and has never been ranked by Poets&Quants.
None of which has stopped students and alumni from singing the program’s praises. In the school’s most recent student satisfaction survey, 95% of iMBA students said they were “very” or “highly” satisfied, and 94% said they are “completely” or “very” likely to recommend the program to a friend or colleague. “I felt the educational experience was very satisfying,” one student wrote. “Even though I never stepped into a classroom physically, the program leveraged technology and allowed me to feel connected at all times.”
Added another: “Before I enrolled, my primary concern about an online program was a physical disconnect from my classmates. But the many instances of teamwork that I have since experienced in the iMBA have led me to see the online format as one of its most powerful assets. We are truly an online village.”
And as iMBA grad Christin Gomes told P&Q last year, “The program does a great job of hosting networking events in different cities globally, and students often organize meet-ups and study groups within their locale. I have had the privilege of meeting and learning from so many smart, talented individuals in this program, and I’m glad to call so many of them friends. I might argue that this model has been more beneficial to my real-world experience working for a global organization maneuvering and collaborating with colleagues across regions and time zones.
“One of my biggest concerns about a distance program was not having the networking opportunities that traditional MBA students have in the classroom setting. The opportunities within the iMBA program have exceeded my expectations. I work and speak to my classmates daily through live sessions, social apps, and group projects. Professors are also readily available via class and designated virtual office hours.”
See next page for admissions data for the Illinois Gies full- and part-time MBA programs as well as the iMBA.