How Gies Business Designed & Delivers ‘The World’s MBA’


Four years ago, when the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business announced it would offer a $22,000 online MBA degree, rival business schools were stunned. The price of the school’s iMBA program was by far the lowest of any major university’s online MBA at a school that typically ranked among the top 50 for its full-time, on-campus MBA.

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.

Not surprisingly, applicants and students in Gies’ iMBA program have been exploding. the market has responded. While applications to U.S. MBA programs have declined in each of the past five years, Gies’ iMBA enrollment has grown to more than 2,500 students this fall from a debut cohort of just 114 students three and one-half years ago.


How has Gies been able to design and deliver what Gies’ Dean Jeffrey Brown is calling ‘The World’s MBA?’ In this live-streamed panel discussion, Dean Brown and Assistant Dean of Online Programs Arshad Saiyed discuss how they’ve created an online MBA of high quality and high engagement for just $22,000. In a follow-up conversation, Poets&Quants‘ Founder John A. Byrne will engage a group of current iMBA students on what it is like to get their degree online.

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation:

John A. Byrne: You are offering an MBA degree from a school that historically has been among the top 50 in the U.S. for just $22,000. How do you do it? 

Jeffrey Brown: It’s a completely new business model. It is one where we made significant investments upfront. We’ve grown it to a scale that allows us to provide an exceptionally high-quality education at a $22,000 price and have a sustainable financial model in doing it. It is about scale. It’s about being able to deliver excellence at scale. You couldn’t run a $20,000 program with only 50 students in it. But you can do it well when you have a couple of thousand students.

Byrne: In the beginning, when online degrees began to become more popular, the expectation was the higher education would become more accessible and more affordable. But it turns out that didn’t really happen. Many MBA degree programs cost as much as on-campus options. You really broke a barrier here when you came out with a $22,000 iMBA.

Brown: I would say it did happen. It happened right here.

Byrne: Indeed. But what, if anything, do students sacrifice for the lower price? Because someone looking at the price will inevitably think, “Okay. What am I going to give up to get this value?”

Arshad Saiyed: Going back to our mission as a land-grant institution, it’s important to note that that is where it started. That is our purpose at the end of the day. It didn’t start with the money angle, but rather from the mission-driven aspect of this. Then we figured out what the right model and approach are in terms of having that cost. We don’t believe that we are sacrificing anything in this online program. Students have an opportunity to get an extremely high-quality education with many of our best faculty in a program connecting students across the globe. We don’t feel that they are sacrificing anything in terms of quality.

Brown: It is an exceptional program where the student experience, the education, and the networking they get rivals anything out there, whether it’s online or residential. We have a whole new model for doing it that allows us to support the program at a really aggressive price point that makes it accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do it. It was all driven because we’re a land-grant institution, and we care about access.

Byrne: Let’s go to things that make your program unique and different above and beyond the price. First thing is you didn’t simply take your traditional curriculum and throw it online. You actually took out a blank piece of paper and re-imagined what you thought should be taught in an MBA. Talk a little bit about that first.

Saiyed: Absolutely. Instead of just putting a residential MBA program online, we designed the program for the online medium. Instead of just putting up courses, we thematically arranged them. We unbundled the whole degree in a way and repackaged the courses in what we refer to as active learning packages. They are connected around teams. When you are talking about leadership, and when you’re talking about business strategy and designing and managing organizations, they’re all connected in a team together with a capstone project. You do that across the board. Then students have the opportunity to engage around it.

I think we’ve also partnered outside of this college with other colleges to have a cross-collaborative curriculum. For example, in digital marketing with advertising and the college of business. As well as from an individual from Google teaching the program. The notion is this is not only a program and a curriculum that is innovative, but it’s also market relevant. It’s relevant that they can apply what they learn right away on the job.

Brown: The only thing I’ll add is that the mindset of let’s design the program for this medium also applied to how we designed the courses themselves after we established what the content would be. If you want to tell a really compelling story, you can do it through a novel. You can do it through a stage production. You can do it in Hollywood. You can do it very effectively in any of those formats if you do it for that format. But if all you did was stick a camera in the back of a live stage theater, you’re going to get a bad experience. But if you make a movie using the techniques of Hollywood, not the techniques of Broadway, you can have an equally compelling high-quality experience. 

There are low quality and high-quality residential programs. There are low quality and high-quality online programs. We believe the secret to creating an exceptionally high-quality online program was to build everything for that purpose.

Byrne: I can attest that you have five studios now in the building where a lot of action is going on. We’ll get into that a little bit later. But I want to talk about another unique aspect of the program, which is its stackable nature. So students can try out courses without credit or a sequence of courses. Or you can take them for credit without a degree or toward a degree. On one level, that makes it a little more complicated. On another level, it makes it really easy to take snack-like bites of the curriculum and decide if you want the whole meal. How has that played out?

Brown: Really, this whole program was about breaking down barriers. We lowered the price substantially. We made it possible for people to continue working full-time and build this around their lives. We made it possible for people to continue to live with their families wherever they are and not have to uproot and move here. We made it possible for people to try it out without committing to having to leave their job and commit to a couple hundred thousand dollar programs that they may or may not like. We’ve also made it possible for some students who have gone out into the world and been extraordinarily successful to get a degree. Sometimes you find somebody who wasn’t the best student as an undergrad, but they found their way later in life and have gone on to be a very successful professional.

If we have concerns about their academic acumen, we can say, “You know what? Go try out one or two of our courses.” If you do well in them, then it’s another path through which you can demonstrate your ability to be successful in our program.

Byrne: In that sense, it almost acts like a little admissions test or requirement. 

Brown: It is.

Saiyed: We have formalized it as a performance admission track, which is just exactly what Dean Brown described. You can apply to it as a performance track if you’d like to do that. You get admitted. You go through a sequence of courses. Prove that academically, you can be successful. You can work with your peers, be a great group member, and you are admitted. You take three courses and maintain a 3.0 GPA and that is it.

Byrne: The other thing that you did to remove a considerable hurdle is to waive the GMAT. Why did you do that?

Brown: If you’re on the young side of our application pool, and you don’t have as much work experience as our typical student who has lots of years of experience, taking the GMAT does provide us some information. But if you’ve been out for 10 years and you’re a successful mid-level or senior-level executive at a Fortune 500 company, or you’ve been a successful entrepreneur, or you have a law degree in a successful law practice, we’re really not going to learn anything from a GMAT test other than the fact that you took the GMAT. We’ve seen from your professional success that you have what it takes. We just really think the additional information value we get out of a standardized test at that point in somebody’s career is very limited.

Byrne: The average student in your program has 12, 13 years of work experience already?

Saiyed: Yes, 12 years and they’re about 37 years of age.

Brown: If you did well on a standardized test, you can send it in, and it will help your application, but we don’t want that to be a barrier.

Byrne: Your student satisfaction rates are extremely high in the online MBA program. I believe that 95% are very satisfied.

Saiyed: It’s actually 98.6.

Byrne: Okay, 98.6% of the students surveyed say they are highly satisfied or very satisfied. And 94% would recommend the program to a colleague, friend, a relative. So why don’t you participate in online MBA rankings that survey students because you already know your students are going to give you highly positive satisfaction results.


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