When a business school shutters its full-time MBA program, many consider it to be the death knell for the institution. The full-timers are the high-potentials and the elites – cut them out and you’re bound to raise questions. In 2019, The Gies College announced that it was shutting down its full-time and part-time MBA programs. In its place, the school doubled down on its online platform – a format some critics consider to be a cheap knock-off.
Well, they got the cheap part right.
Introducing the iMBA. For $22,000, you too can earn a quality MBA. And that’s $22,000 for everything – not a year – but the whole degree program. Oh – and if you want a newly-launched iMSM degree, that’ll run you $11,000.
What’s the catch?
None really says Jeffrey Brown, the dean of the Gies College since 2015. “It’s a completely new business model,” he tells P&Q in a interview. “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.”
The school has certainly delivered on the scale part. Launched in 2016, the iMBA program now numbers 4,000 students. 739 graduates already populate Fortune 500 firms. Taught by the school’s most senior faculty, iMBA students average 37 years of age and 12 years of work experience (including a 70-year-old with 43 years of work experience). Last year, iMBA applications jumped by 75% over the previous year according to data released in September, as the school generated over 3,272 applications. Unlike many online MBA programs, where in-person structures and methodologies are stuffed into an online platform, the iMBA is “online by design.”
“We started with a blank slate,” explains Brooke Elliott, the associate dean of online programs at the Gies College, in a 2020 interview. “And so from a curriculum perspective, we thought carefully about creating a program that served working professionals. The curriculum needed to be career curated, flexible, and accessible. As an example, when we design a course to be delivered online, from the very beginning, the faculty member is paired with an instructional designer, and they spend hours and hours and hours together to design the course to be delivered online. And we start with learning outcomes. When we develop a Massive Open Online Course as part of each high engagement credit-bearing course, it is delivered on the Coursera platform. For a four-week MOOC, which typically would be associated with a two-credit hour course, that takes somewhere between 300 and 350 hours of eLearning investment, and 60 to 80 hours of faculty investment. And so it is a laborious process. But it’s critical and that investment pays off in the quality of the online education that our students experience.”
How strong is the program? In the iMBA’s most recent survey, Elliott notes, 95% of students shared that they immediately applied something at work that they’d learned in class. Another 53% revealed that they had earned a promotion while they were in the program. Not surprisingly, student satisfaction rates have shot through the roof. According to the school, 98.6% of the most recent class rated their experience as either “Highly Satisfied” or “Very Satisfied.”
One reason? The program stresses convenience. It mixes synchronous and asynchronous learning. Most notably, the iMBA hosts weekly live sessions. Actually, the program runs several live sessions across different time zones to ensure students across the world can participate. In most cases, the students operate in 3-5 member teams, with an algorithm putting together diverse case teams from over 100 countries. In fact, many classes are taught by two professors for added support. What’s more, teams can operate in as many as 50 Zoom breakout rooms.
Judy Safian, a Rhode Island consultant, considers quality to be the best part of the program. “The biggest investment is our time. We’re all working. Our time is really valuable, and you just don’t know when you start the program what exactly to expect. It’s a gamble. Showing up to those live sessions, doing the work, you’re in a live session and you’re seeing the professor, you can raise your hand, you’re getting called on, there’s a live chat going on. You’re having a discussion around whatever your topic is, you’re saying hello to each other, you’re saying thank you and goodbye to each other, just during a live session.”
The iMBA also comes with another differentiator, adds Elliott. “In terms of engagement, we also don’t require any on-campus visits. A lot of online programs have a required on-campus immersion, or it requires that you come to campus for a two-week period over the course of your degree. We do not require that, but we do provide opportunities. Every fall, we’re able to host an event where we invite all of our online students back to campus called iConverge. Unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to hold that event this year because of the pandemic. But we had anticipated over 1,000 students to converge on Champaign-Urbana.”
The program also defines the expectation that a $22K MBA would be no-frills and bare bones. For example, the program includes optional global and industry immersions. At the same time, the iMBA can be unexpectedly intimate. “Whenever the faculty member’s delivering,” Elliott adds, “they’re blown up on the screen. I say it’s like the Peloton experience where an instructor is yelling at me to crank it up. The faculty members are very engaged and they do know the students and they call on them by name. That’s a hallmark of what you can do in online education. It really does provide equity because we bring the learning to the student wherever they are, and sometimes because of schedules, the best you can do is learn from the airport or attend a live session on a train. Our program provides that level of flexibility.”
Despite its success with the iMBA, Gies is hardly resting on its laurels. Last year, the school launched an analytics focus area. The school has also embraced a life-long learning model through its Skills Academy. These self-paced micro-courses, lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours, are designed to help students and alumni alike keep their skills sharp. Such amenities feed into the iMBA philosophy: making learning accessible and affordable.
“Really, this whole program was about breaking down barriers,” asserts Dean Jeffrey Brown. “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.”