Illinois Gies’ Latest Innovation: Stackable Degrees & Credentials

Eric Scott, Gies iMBA candidate ’23, organized Winter Takeover, a student-led initiative to bring together iMBA students on the University of Illinois campus in between the popular iConverge gatherings each spring. Courtesy photo

When Gies College of Business launched its innovative, highly disruptive online MBA in 2016, it did so with students like Eric Scott in mind.

The marketing and communications leader spent the lion’s share of his career working in sports, with stints in media and public relations for the University of Northern Colorado, the University of North Florida, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Jacksonville Armada, a professional soccer club. He’d thought about an MBA for nearly 15 years, but could never fit it into the growing demands of his work and family.

Eric Scott

When the pandemic hit in 2020, he started thinking about it again after hearing about a friend’s experience getting an online master’s degree in analytics. He put his two-year-old daughter down for a nap and started researching. He came across University of Illinois’ Geis’ online MBA for $23,000.

“For me, cost was a major factor; I didn’t want to be in unmanageable debt for the rest of my life. Beyond that, I wanted something with a great reputation. I wanted the challenge of going to one of the top public schools in the country,” says Scott, now Chief Marketing Officer at MDM Commercial in Jacksonville, Florida.

Gies, it turned out, was just what he was looking for.


In early 2016, the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business’ iMBA completely upended the online MBA market years before COVID propelled it into overdrive. It’s why Poets&Quants named it the business school innovation of the decade in 2020.

Since then, 61% of its iMBA students have earned a promotion, job offer, or new position. Enrollment has grown from just 116 students in January 2016 to more than 5,000. UI’s programs on Coursera, its online partner since the beginning, had a 73% year-on-year growth in underrepresented degree students in 2021.

Gies hasn’t stopped innovating. In its mission to democratize higher education through affordable, flexible, high-quality degrees, certificates, and other products, it is now investing big in stackability: Allowing students to roll previous courses and credentials into larger certificates and degrees.

“I do believe we’re differentiated when you think about our entire portfolio of stackability. I know of no other business school, and probably no other institution, where you can start with a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), stack a MOOC into a single course, a single course into a certificate, a certificate into a degree, and a degree into another degree,” says Brooke Elliott, associate dean and EY professor in the Gies College of Business.

“I think it’s that entire portfolio that is attractive and really differentiates what we do, all in a very affordable, flexible way.”


Brooke Elliott, EY Professor and Executive Associate Dean of Gies College of Business, talks with students during iConverge 2022 at the University of Illinois. Courtesy photo

In August, Gies announced that graduates of its Masters of Science in Management (MSM) can now apply all 36 credit hours to its 72-hour iMBA degree – cutting MBA completion time in half while saving students both time and money. (Gies’ online MSM launched in 2020 for $11,520.) Students can continue the iMBA immediately after completion (though they will have to apply to get in) or return several years later with more professional experience under their belts.

“This is the first time in the history of the University of Illinois that a degree can stack into another degree, and it’s one of the very rare examples of this being done at any business school in the country,” Gies says on its website.

This spring and summer, Gies also launched three online, credit-bearing graduate certificates – Digital Marketing, Accounting Data Analytics and Strategic Leadership & Management – and has plans to launch up to five more within the next year. Each can be completed in 4 to 6 months and will be stackable into any of its three online degree programs: iMBA, iMSM, and Master of Science in Accountancy (iMSA).

From the beginning, Gies has partnered with Coursera to reach the explosive market of engaged online learners. Gies provides the content, faculty, and curriculum, Coursera provides the platform and scalability – more than 107 million online learners across the planet. Coursera has also introduced stackable microcredentials that provide credit.

“Since launching the first degree on Coursera seven years ago, Gies College of Business has continued to innovate and reimagine online education. Stackability began with courses and certificates, and now, with the iMSM and iMBA, students can stack full degrees into each other,” says Dr. Quentin McAndrew, academic strategist at Coursera. “I’m inspired by how these bold changes to make learning more flexible and accessible have impacted thousands of students worldwide, like Eric Scott.”


With his extensive work history, Scott was admitted to Gies’ iMBA program in 2021. He serves on the school’s iDegrees Student Councils, is an iDegrees Student Ambassador, and organized a student-led initiative called Winter Takeover to bring students together, on campus, in between the program’s popular iConverge gatherings each spring.

“I’m very impressed with how seamless its been to easily access the content and communicate with the professors and TAs,” Scott tells Poets&Quants. “There’s the live components, which I love, that are very interactive between the students and professors. Our breakout sessions are a great place to meet, network, and build relationships with classmates.”

About halfway through his iMBA degree at UI’s Gies College of Business, Eric Scott secured a promotion to Chief Marketing Officer at his company. Courtesy photo

Though he isn’t expected to graduate until May 2023, the degree has already paid dividends.

When he started the program, Scott was director of marketing at MDM Commercial. Shortly after announcing his intentions to earn his MBA to his boss, his boss offered to help with the program’s tuition, and enlisted Scott to help develop an official tuition reimbursement program at the company.

In April, about halfway through the program, Scott had “the talk” with his boss, a lesson he learned from the program about taking the reins of one’s own career advancement. He clearly outlined the skills and knowledge he’d acquired in his iMBA and how it directly related to his job at MDM. Scott was promoted to Chief Marketing Officer in May.

“It really played a key role not just in my skills in my own role and my ability to understand the whole business, but also in confidence,” Scott says. “A lot of people say this is life changing, and it definitely has been life changing for me. Beyond just the promotion, it’s given me a different perspective, the ability to be open minded, and given me a better understanding of the big picture.”

Poets&Quants wanted to learn more about Gies’ big bets on stackability. We recently sat down with Brooke Elliott, associate dean and EY professor in the Gies College of Business, to talk about the college’s continued innovation in its mission to democratize business education for students across the planet.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NEXT PAGE: P&Q’s Q&A with Gies associate dean Brooke Elliott

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