Why EY’s Free Online MBA For Employees Is No Threat To B-Schools


EY has forged a unique partnership with Hult International Business School to offers its employees an online MBA for free

For years, business schools have anxiously watched and worried about corporate attempts to educate their own employees. The biggest impact of these efforts has been by far on executive education, highly lucrative multi-day and multi-week certificate courses offered at many of the top business schools.

But now, there’s a new potential threat in the announcement that EY, the Big Four accounting and consulting giant, has partnered with Hult International Business School on an online MBA program that it will make available for free to all of EY staffers across the world. Within hours of the announcement last week, the firm’s top talent chief heard from many 20-something professionals.

“That is the single most popular constituent I have heard from,” says Trent Henry, EY Global Vice Chair for Talent. “They said, ‘I wanted to let you know that I was going to go back to X school this fall, but why spend $75,000 to do an online program with a school when I can stay at EY, work with amazing clients, and get an MBA for free?’” In fact, ranked online MBA programs vary in cost from a low of $20,000 at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell to a high of $137,000 at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business.


Trent Henry, EY's chief global talent officer

Trent Henry, EY’s chief global talent officer

With a global workforce of more than 300,000 employees whose average age is 28, many business schools are likely to worry that a major feeder of talent will be shutdown. No less crucial, they express concern that EY is likely to be the first but not the last major corporation to collaborate with an educational partner on an online MBA. They shouldn’t–at least not yet.

For EY, the motivation to offer the first-ever fully accredited corporate MBA is obvious. “It is about having the capabilities to serve our clients,” says Henry in an interview with Poets&Quants, “but let’s be clear it is also about attracting and retaining the best talent. We think the program fits squarely in that bucket as well. We have heard from recruits and employees that they are very excited about this. And it’s free so that is a good price.”

Indeed. Employees can get their online MBAs in as little as 18 months to five or six years. Given the demands on EY employees, however, Trent expects most employees to take three to four years to earn an MBA from Hult. Roughly a third of the program will be core content in three pillar areas—technology, leadership and basic business skills from accounting and finance to strategy and marketing. The rest of the program will be composed of elective courses, with many in emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, and newer business skills, such as data analytics. So far, there are more than 100 courses from which to choose. Another feature of the program is that employees can choose to specialize in specific areas, from cybersecurity to data visualization—to gain micro-credentials that can be applied toward the full degree.


Trent says he approached several other business schools about a partnership in addition to Hult. “We talked to a lot of people,” he says. “A lot of the bricks and mortar organizations were really keen on this. We had some really good discussions but they just couldn’t in their environment with their governance get this done as quickly as we wanted it done.”

The discussions with Hult began late last fall, says Trent, and EY was close to a letter of agreement within six to eight weeks. “We had a meeting of the minds very quickly, and Hult has been a great partner from the very start. They are known for modern up-skilling and making sure things are practical in application. They are a very agile organization and they have campuses in the major regions of the world. And in the U.S. context,” adds Trent, “they are the only triple-accredited school globally and that was a neat aspect, too.”

Though the contract runs for “two to three years,” says Trent, “we’ve gone into this with good faith and expect to reiterate after that. This will be a longer-term opportunity for both of us.”


Riaz Shah, senior partner at EY in global learning based in London

Trent credits Riaz Shah, a senior partner in global learning based in London, as the brainchild of the idea. The MBA itself builds on an existing three-year-old program of EY Badges, through which employees earn digital credentials in “future-focused skills” through learning and applying their learning in practice. 

The virtual MBA, however, is part of what Trent calls “a brand new relationship with Hult. We realized we hired a lot of Hult MBAs and I didn’t even know that.” To earn the EY Tech MBA by Hult, EY staffers would have to complete 16 Badges spanning technology, leadership and business topics—the three core pillars, each requiring a pillar insight paper—as well as a final capstone project. The total commitment is more than 300 hours.

“To stay relevant with our client base,” he adds, “it was important for us to have a more modern way to up-skill the workforce. New technologies are coming to market all the time. Our clients are interested in adopting these technologies quickly. From an up-skilling perspective, there was a need. I think the future of learning is toward a more customized approach for the individual. So we are matching client needs with real-time knowledge and giving people the opportunity to build a career that is meaningful for them.”


Already, says Trent, employees are signing up at a “voracious rate.” But he does not have either an internal estimate of how many employees are likely to take EY up on the unusual offer or how much it will ultimately cost the company which already spends in excess of $500 million a year in training its workforce, not including the cost of employee time. Some if not all of the costs of this free MBA will be absorbed in the firm’s current spending. “We spend so much on learning overall so this is taking advantage of some of the current investments we have made already,” says Trent.

Should business school deans worry? Not really. EY’s Trent makes clear that its online program will not impact the firm’s recruitment of MBA graduates. “We do hire a lot of MBAs and it’s an important constituency for us,” adds Trent. “We are not trying to replace the traditional bricks and mortar MBAs but our people are telling us that when they leave business school there is still a need to understand the modern technologies and new skills that would keep them relevant over time. I think people who do MBAs are curious by nature. That constituency has shown interest in this because if you have an MBA from a big school you still may want to do the next level of thinking on cybersecurity or AI. And so in that way, they can build on their micro-skills.”

After all, what EY is essentially offering employees is a fraction of a true MBA experience and therefore a fraction of its real value. The focus of this program will be on business basics and such tech subjects as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and digitization. Truth is, you don’t have to go to a business school to learn the fundamentals of accounting, finance, marketing or to learn what impact AI will ultimately have on business. You could do that by signing up for a portfolio of MOOC courses.


EY/Hult MBA students will miss the most important elements of a fully immersive MBA experience that are not included at all. Because the program is entirely online and open to only employees, it will not feature learning and socializing with a group of diverse young professionals from all walks of life in different companies and industries.

One of the core benefits of MBA programs is that they bring together individuals who have worked at Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft with those who have worked at McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, General Electric, ExxonMobil, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, and Walmart. The knowledge and insights a student gains from classmates who bring experience from many of the most admired and innovative companies in the world are invaluable.

And who would expect an online EY program to dangle the rich benefits of working elsewhere in vastly different roles and industries? EY’s effort is not to open one’s horizons to opportunities outside EY. It is to keep them closed. The Hult program makes no effort, as you would expect, to bring new job and career opportunities to more typical MBA learners, from the parade of MBA employers who regularly come to campus to inform and recruit students to active career management, including one-on-one coaching and mentoring. 

To the extent that an MBA degree conveys prestige, that status is often the direct result of brand. Hult International is not a highly selective business school with an MBA ranked among the Top 50 in the world. In fact, the school’s MBA was dropped from the Financial Times annual ranking six years ago and has never been able to get back onto the FT’s list of the top 100 MBAs in the world. Hult’s online MBA is not ranked by either Poets&Quants or U.S. News & World Report, the latter of which ranks 321 virtual programs.


While many of the social aspects of a full MBA experience are now on hold due to the pandemic, EY is not about to send MBA students on global immersions, practice their leadership muscles by allowing them to organize and lead major conferences on business issues or active student organizations, put them in teams for consulting projects with other major corporations, or teach them how to take a business idea and turn it into a startup.

And finally, graduates of the EY program will not gain access to an external network of relationships outside their firm to gain support, encouragement, and connections from alumni all over the world in every conceivable industry and discipline. Networking with and through a school’s alumni base, after all, is a major reason to attend a business school’s MBA program.

Still, free is free. And at a time when even online MBA programs can be priced in the six-figures, this free option from EY will certainly convince a good number of employees, some of whom may have signed up for other online MBA programs or left the firm for full-time options, to stay at the company and take advantage of the offer. Perhaps the most important takeaway for business school leadership is the need to be far more agile and flexible moving forward.

Trent says that since the announcement he has received “a tremendous amount of email from all over the world” from business school administrators and professors who want to see if they can somehow get involved in the program. One of the things they frequently ask him? “I would love to understand how did you get this done so quickly.”


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