Ever since launching its $22,000 online MBA five years ago, Gies College of Business of the University of Illinois has seen explosive growth. The school is predicting that its iMBA offering alone will have a total enrollment of between 3,750 and 4,000 students this fall. That hockey stick growth, moreover, has been achieved without the program ever having been ranked.
And that’s the way it’s going to be moving forward, according to Gies Dean Jeffrey Brown who has come to the conclusion that cooperating with third party organizations to win a ranking for its iMBA is not something that is in the interests of the school or the program.
Rankings of online MBA programs are done by U.S. News & World Report, PoetsandQuants.com, and The Financial Times, among several other media outlets. But from the start of the Gies’ online MBA offering, the school has consistently turned down invitations to participate with those rankings. Nonetheless, the school’s senior leadership has debated the issue internally for years before coming to its current conclusion.
‘THE WORD OF MOUTH AND THE REPUTATION OF THE PROGRAM IS REALLY STRONG’
Total enrollment for the iMBA program this past spring was 2,844 students. The school expects to add an additional 1,450 to 1,700 students in its August cohort, which after graduation will bring total enrollment to between 3,750 and 4,000. Plus, the school will have 460 additional graduate students in its online iMSA accounting program and expects enrollment of 400 more students in its new iMSM management program across August and October starts. By year’s end, the total enrollment of Gies’ online students will exceed those in its in-person, on-campus classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
“Students and alumni have asked many times over the years whether and when we are going to participate in rankings,” concedes Brown, a former finance professor who took over as dean five years ago. “So we’ve made a decision not to do it, and I’m very confident this is the right decision for us. The word of mouth and the reputation of the program is really strong and we’ve been able to achieve remarkable growth without being excessively focused on this. Even if there was a perfect ranking out there for us, I don’t ever want our ability to be innovative and agile to be constrained by worrying about what some third party set of metrics is telling us to focus on.”
Brown suggests that some of the goals of the program could be compromised if the school participated in rankings. One example he cites is Gies’ mission to improve access to higher education by offering programs at disruptive prices, including the iMBA which still costs only $22,000. “If a prospective student has been out for a long time and has proven themselves through a successful career, I don’t care if they score well on a GMAT or GRE test,” he says. “Some rankings care about that metric. That is just one example. But there are a lot of those things.”
‘WE ARE NOT SCARED OF THE OUTCOMES’
The dean says his decision is not based on where the program might rank on various lists. “It’s not that we are choosing not to participate because we are scared of the outcomes,” he insists. “That’s not it at all. We are having such success with this program and the things that make it a success are things I am afraid we might lose if we start to care too much about what some external benchmarks value. Instead, we are publishing all of the metrics that a prospective student would want to know. We are trying to put everything out there that a prospective student should care about and it’s all the things that a ranking organization seeks to measure. Rather than allowing U.S. News to put whatever weights on it, we’ll just let the prospective students put weights on what matters to them. We are just going to be radically transparent. If you have a question about our program, we’ll just answer it. We are not hiding anything. We are proud of what we do. We don’t need somebody else to publish our data per se.”
On a webpage called “how the iMBA measures up,” the school discloses selected data on student satisfaction, career outcomes, student demographics and graduation rates. Gies says that its survey of students last fall found that 98% rated the quality of their educational experience in the online program either “excellent” or “good.” Some 94% of the students in that survey said they would be either “completely likely” or “very likely” to recommend the iMBA to a friend, family member or colleague.
About 95% of the graduates of the iMBA through the fall of last year said they were able to apply what was learned in the program to their professional work and 53% received a promotion, a job offer or accepted a new position during their time in the iMBA program, according to the school. The average pay increase for iMBA students during and immediately after graduation was 20%.
SCHOOL EXPECTS SOME PUSHBACK FROM STUDENTS AND ALUMNI
The school also revealed that it received 3,517 applications for the 2019-2020 academic year and accepted 53% of those who applied. Applications continue to grow, reaching roughly 2,500 for the first six months of this year. According to the website, the average GMAT score, for an undisclosed number of enrolled students who provided that data, was 633, with an average undergraduate GPA of 3.25. On average, students brought 11.6 years of work experience with them into the iMBA program and took 2.4 years to complete the program and graduate. But work experience varied greatly, from 37 iMBA admits with less than a year’s experience and one with 43 years of experience who is actually 70 years old.
Gies revealed that the retention rate for the program was 95%, a number indicating the percentage of students who re-enroll after their initial term. The page also includes the names of Fortune 500 companies, including AT&T, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Caterpillar, State Farm Insurance, and Abbvie, whose employees are taking or have already earned their iMBA degrees.
Brown says he expects some pushback on the school’s decision. “We are under no illusions there are going to be some students and alumni who are not going to be happy with this decision,” he adds. “For a lot of them, it’s a pride issue. They know how good this program is and they want to see it ranked. In other cases, we recognize that this might create some issues for some students when employers only reimburse them for attending top programs. We are going to try and work with those students and say our business school is still ranked and our university is still ranked. We just chose not to rank this program. We might lose a few students over this, but I think we considered all of that in making the decision and we think it’s the right things for us.”