iConverge: A Love Fest Of Passionate Believers For Gies’ iMBA

Brooke Elliott (right), wo leads the online programs at the Gies College of Business as an Associate Dean, poses with an iMBA student at iConverge for a selfie

Lucy Chang Evans couldn’t believe it. An MBA from a Big Ten university for just $22,500?

The former engineer and Secret Service agent wanted to transition into a new career and believed that an MBA was the ticket to that new life. Her online research led to the Gies College of Business iMBA program at the University of Illinois.

“Then,” says Evans, “I saw the price tag and said, ‘There’s something wrong with this. It was just too inexpensive for an MBA. But I talked to others and decided to give it a try.”

She was not alone. Among the hundreds of thousands of inquiries the school is receiving each year from would-be applicants, the most common questions revolve around the price. “They ask, ‘How are you doing this?,’ ‘Is this a trick?,’ ‘Are you hiding something?,’” says Aaricka Hellberg, assistant director of recruitment and admissions at Gies.

‘ONLINE IS AN EQUALIZER FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE INTERESTED IN GETTING AN MBA’

A former Secret Service agent, Lucy Chang Evans expects to graduate from the iMBA program next year

The answer: No, it is not a trick. There are no hidden charges that would make the total cost of the degree much higher. And the students who sign up for this experience have little negative to say about the program.

Expecting to graduate with her online MBA next year, Evans couldn’t be happier. “It has exceeded my expectations. Online is an equalizer for people who are interested in getting an MBA. It’s easy to network and make friends,” adds Evans, who has attended several meet-ups in homes, parks, and restaurants in her hometown of Naperville, Ill., where as many as 30 students are enrolled in the program.

Though an online MBA student, Evans is on the Urbana-Champaign campus, a quick 22-minute flight from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. She’s one of nearly 400 current, past and future iMBAs, including 17 international students from 13 countries, for the school’s i-Converge event. It is a celebratory feast of sorts, where selfies and Gies swag, warm hugs and smiles are ever present among many who had only met virtually via Zoom. After last year’s event was cancelled due to COVID, this years vaccinated attendees were ebullient that they could show up in their orange-and-blue Gies’ face masks.

MORE THAN AN ACADEMIC CONFERENCE, iCONVERGE IS A LOVE FEST

Over the two-day event on Sept. 17 and 18th, there was no shortage of inspiring speeches and thoughtful lectures on everything from Designing for Disruption to Speaking With Intention, tours of labs, studios and the new Siebel Design Center. A series of brief narratives, witty, thoughtful, and intimate, delivered by eight iMBA alums from Turkey and Japan to Boston and Chicago. The obligatory drone class photo was snapped on a sunny afternoon, with many eagerly awaiting the organized tailgate and networking gathering for Friday night’s Illinois vs. Maryland football game (it didn’t matter that Illini lost 20-17).

But the main event during this lingering pandemic had little to do with the formal agenda. They came simply to see each other. For months on end, their primary contact with their classmates and their professors was on a computer or mobile phone. They endlessly Zoomed, Slacked and WhatsApped each other. Now, they would actually meet in the flesh the familiar images who appeared as pixels on their screens.

More than an academic gathering, iConverge is a love fest. Students laughingly swap stories of riding through demanding courses like Statistics and Managerial Accounting, joke about being exhausted during late-night team meetings on the Internet, absorbing video lectures on airplane trips, and bombing exams that can bring one to tears. It is hard to tell that almost all of these students never met each other until now,

‘I KNOW WHAT A FAIR PRICE WAS WHEN I WAS LOOKING FOR THE DEGREE’

Karen Finocchio Lubeck, a 2019 iMBA graduate, has been to three iConverge events

For Karen Finocchio Lubeck, who was in the program’s third cohort and graduated with her iMBA two years ago in 2019, this is the third time she has attended iConverge. Why does she keep coming back? “It’s the people,” she says. “It’s the faculty. It’s my alumni friends and the new people in the program.”

With a background in higher education consulting in Boston, she concedes that the total cost of the program, now $22,500 from the original $22,000, was an attractive lure. “The price,” she says, “was very important because I know what a fair price was when I was looking for the degree. But then I was blown away by the quality of the experience.”

That value proposition has made the Gies’ online program the fastest growing MBA in the world. From an initial cohort just 116 students in 2016, the program has now grown to a current enrollment of 4,288 iMBA students. Every stat on the program reinforces the notion that it is one of the most affordable and accessible quality MBA programs ever: the 95%-plus retention rate across all the program’s cohorts, the 97% student satisfaction level, and the 94% of students who say they would highly recommend the program to a friend.

UNIMAGINABLE SCALE ACHIEVED IN AN MBA PROGRAM

How has Gies been able to achieve that level of success while scaling the program to an enrollment of what will likely be 5,000 students by year’s end? “All of my team works 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” laughs Associate Dean Brooke Elliott who oversees the college’s online programs. Chair of Gies’ accounting department, Elliott took on her leadership role in February of 2020, just as COVID-19 changed everything. Applications soared even beyond any reasonable expectation and enrollment ballooned to the nearly 4,300 current students from 2,600 in March of 2020. In a single year, enrollment increased at a pace that was expected to take three years.

Yet, in the middle of all that scaling, Elliott even managed to launch in the midst of the pandemic an new online graduate program, a master’s degree in management. The full launch occurred in October of last year and the program is just short of 600 new students, including Gies’ Dean Jeff Brown’s own daughter. It was the most successful launch of any graduate program in the history of the University of Illinois. Along with the school’s online master’s in accounting, Gies now counts more than 5,700 graduate students online from zero just six years ago.

To handle that explosive growth, Gies had to immediately boost its investments in online education at a pace unheard of in academia. While colleges and universities all over the world struggled with budget cutbacks due to the impact of the pandemic on enrollments, Gies had to throw everything it had at its program to scale effectively. The online program administrative staff now numbers 45, up from 27 just 18 months ago. The core teaching and learning team has doubled to 70 from 36 in that same timeframe. Some 60 faculty members now teach online, including at least 15 professors who hadn’t taught virtually before March of last year. Once you add in the more than 300 course assistants, there are now more than 475 people working together to support Gies’ three online degree programs.

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