Brainstorming The Future: Boston University’s Disruptive $24K Online MBA

The Atrium at Boston University's Questrom School of Business

The atrium at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business

Surrounded by sheets of ideas that paper the glass walls, one of Boston University’s star professors is explaining his concept for one of the earliest classes in the school’s forthcoming online MBA program. Venkat Venkatraman has run this exercise many times before but always in an on-campus class, face-to-face with students. Now he has to translate his idea to the online world. It’s hardly a no-brainer.

The brainstorm is one of many in The Cube, a nondescript fourth-floor conference room, in a corner of the Questrom School of Business where professors, instructional designers and a teaming expert have already spend hundreds of often tedious hours in the art of invention. They are building from scratch a new MBA curriculum for what will be one of the most disruptive experiments in business education: a $24,000 online MBA.

There is some urgency to the exercise.  As of today (Feb. 18th), 172 admitted students have already put down the deposit to start the program in early August. Yet, the school is still wrestling with the details of the very first classes in the MBA program. At a time when MBA applications have been declining for several years, Questrom has found no shortage of takers for its $24K offering. With the final application deadline a month away on March 18th, roughly 700 applicants have started the application, and Questrom has already filled more than 85% of the seats in its debut cohort of 200 students. That means most of the next round of students will go into the spring cohort.


“The students look insanely good,” boasts Dean Susan Fournier, who has staked her deanship on the program. The early demographics for the first cohort show students are 35 years of age on average with 11 years of work experience. They range in age from 24 to 55, though a 71-year-old has begun an application. Deposited admits come from 28 states, with Massachusetts and California the two most represented, and 24 countries, including India and Canada. They include engineers, lawyers, doctors, even a former professional baseball player for the San Francisco Giants who now runs his family’s business.

The school says the yield—the percentage of admits who have put down a deposit—in round one is 85.6%. “It’s a low melt group,” says Meredith Siegel, assistant dean of graduate admissions and financial aid. “Once they commit, they don’t peel away as they do in residential programs. They are excited to be innovators and pioneers with us, and they are super enthusiastic about all the unknowns.”

More importantly, perhaps, the program appears to be attracting a different segment of students who would be unlikely to enroll in either Questrom’s traditional MBA offerings. Besides the far-flung locations of students, only 3% to 4% of the applicant pools wants an MBA to switch careers, a more difficult proposition with an online program. Some 80% say they are getting the MBA to enhance their career progress with current employers, while 90% say they want to stay in the same industry.


Many professors feared that an inexpensive online MBA would cannibalize the school’s existing full-time program which at $116,508 costs nearly five times as much and its part-time offering which at $97,104 is priced four times higher than the virtual version. But applications to its evening program are slightly up, and there has been no significant impact on the full-time option. “We’ve crossed off some risks on our list,” says Fournier.

The enthusiastic response bodes well for the school’s ambitious plans to quickly scale the program. Within three years, Questrom’s online learners are expected is surpass the combined enrollment of all its current on-campus MBAs, including the 260 in its full-time program and the 700 evening part-timers. In year three, Questrom plans to enroll 500 online students in each of its two intakes for a total of 1,000 virtual learners.

At the school, the race to get up and running is testing an academic bureaucracy and forcing unusual bets. Only a week ago, the university broke with policy to sign a lease for 16,000-square-feet of space on two floors of a nearby building that used to house a Kaplan Test Center. The school will build out four video studios for online taping above a McDonald’s and a Bank of America branch, a couple of blocks from Fenway Park.

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