Gies’ iMBA: The Fastest Growing MBA On The Planet

One of five iMBA studios at the Gies College of Business on the University of Illinois campus

Within minutes of starting his class. Hayden Noel gets right into the face of one of his MBA students with an abrupt cold call.

“I say Volvo. What do you say?,” shouts the highly animated Noel, little more than three feet away from the MBA’s face.

“Safety,” responds Troy Fey, the vice president of technology for an aerospace company.

Except Noel isn’t in the same room with Fey. He’s in a small studio in Champaign, Ill,, in front of a camera, and Fey is sitting nearly 1,100 miles away in front of his laptop in Lutz, Florida. Fey is taking Noel’s class in marketing management as part of the iMBA program at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business.

‘TALK TO ME! LET ME SEE THOSE HANDS!’

Yet, when Noel zeroes in on Fey, the student’s image fills a screen just under the camera, allowing the professor to peer into Fey’s eyes as if he were right smack in front of him. In an opened white dress shirt and a blue blazer, which he buttons just before the camera goes on, Noel is a formidable figure. He is a broad-shouldered 55-year-old man with a bald head, a neatly trimmed beard, a tornado of energy, and a way of invading your space. In fact, the thick black tape on the studio’s floor has been dubbed “the Hayden cage” to keep him and his colleagues from getting too close to the camera. 

Throughout his 90-minute class, he is punching the air, poking his finger into the lens of the camera, pulling from his students’ answers to quickly fired questions at the pace of a high-wired comedian on stage. He frenetically scribbles answers on a whiteboard behind him in black, green and red, each color representing a brand’s attributes, functional and emotional benefits.

“Talk to me! Let me see those hands,” he roars, attempting to get as many students engaged in the topic of a brand’s unique selling proposition. Of course, no one has to really raise his or her hand but rather to click a button on their screen to get Noel’s attention.

IN LESS THAN FOUR YEARS, MORE THAN 2,500 MBA STUDENTS

Hayden Noel teaches marketing at Gies College of Business

Hayden Noel teaches marketing at Gies College of Business

When a student in India has a ready answer to one of his questions, Noel realizes the MBA is participating in the class from a car. “You are not driving, right?” asks the professor. “Stay parked! Do not drive!”

And so it goes. Behind a plate glass window sits a pair of staffers in the control room, switching the three camera feeds on and off and queuing up slides and videos Noel. Two other helpers are in the studio with Noel, an e-learning support team staffer to help with the breakout rooms and real-time polls in a corner of the studio and a teaching assistant monitoring the live chat stream from students all over the U.S. and from Dubai, Kenya, Russia, Australia, the United Kingdom, and India, among other far-flung locales.

Welcome to the fastest-growing MBA program on the planet. While applications to U.S. MBA programs have declined in each of the past five years, applicants to and students in Gies’ iMBA program have been exploding. Enrollment has grown to more than 2,500 MBA degree-seeking students this fall from a debut cohort of just 114 students three and one-half years ago.

‘WE’RE SELLING A TESLA FOR THE PRICE OF A HYUNDAI’

The secret: A $22,000 price tag for an 18-course MBA from a business school that has long been among the top 50 in the U.S. and a program that doesn’t require the GMAT or the GRE. What’s more, the school estimates that roughly half of its students are getting some form of tuition support from their employers which makes the price tag that much more enticing. Yet, despite the bare-bones price, Gies has put its most senior faculty into the online courses, having them hold weekly live Internet classes and office hours, with occasional city meetups between students and faculty, and a portfolio of elective courses with eight different specializations, including a new data analytics track this spring. All for a price at which rival programs are generally stripped down digital textbooks with no live classes, trips or electives.

The school’s leadership, moreover, is busy dreaming up “value-added” programs to make its iMBA even more attractive. In the past year, the school offered online students the chance to do one of two ten-day global immersions in Brazil and Germany. Some 88 students signed up for the 30 available slots on the German trip which Gies priced at an additional $3,600, not including airfare. This year, Gies will double the global immersions to four, possibly including academic stints in South Africa and China, and will also do four to five mini-immersions in the U.S., the first of which is planned for Los Angeles in October when students will do a deep dive into the electric car industry.

This year’s iConverge event, an opportunity for online students to come to campus and experience in-person classes, a keynote address by successful entrepreneur and school namesake Larry Gies, networking events, and a Saturday football game, drew more than 400 highly enthusiastic iMBA students last week. The school is planning one-day events in Chicago and the Bay Area (and will later expand to other cities) that feature professors leading sessions on such topics as strategic innovation to bring together alums, students and faculty. And Gies is putting in a career services platform to help iMBA students with just-in-time recruiting opportunities, job postings, job hunting strategies, and resume building.

“We’re selling a Tesla for the price of a Hyundai,” laughs Jeffrey Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business [Connect Me] . “Deans tell me, ‘Man, I don’t know how you can do this.’ Well, four or five years ago if we had known how hard this was going to be we might have been scared from doing it.”

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About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder of C-Change Media, a global digital media company of higher education content. C-Change now has five websites, including Poets&Quants, and the author or co-author of more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers, and is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, and editor-in-chief of Fast Company. He also is the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools.