Program of the Year announcement with John A. Byrne
Read the full transcript below:
John A. Byrne: Well, hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets&Quants. I have a big announcement today. We named our MBA of the Year for 2022 and it’s the IMBA at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business. Congratulations. We have the dean here, as well as the executive associate dean of academic programs. The dean is the guy in the jacket in that fancy studio, one of several that the school uses to do its video cast and its live internet classes. It’s Jeff Brown, who many of you have to know because, last year, he was our Dean of the Year.
And we have of course Brooke Elliott, who has really helped with the explosive growth of this program and scaling it beyond anyone’s imagination. Brooke is, as I mentioned before, executive associate dean of academic programs. Welcome.
Brooke Elliott: Thank you.
John A. Byrne: So you started this program in 2016 with a little more than 250 students and the growth has been absolutely sensational and explosive. To our reckoning, it’s the fastest growing MBA program in the world since it was launched in 2016. What do you think is the kind of things that made it such a success?
Dean Jeff Brown: Well, I’ll be happy to start. And first of all, John, thank you for this recognition. We’re really proud of what we’ve done here and it’s always a delight to get external recognition for what we’ve done. Look, the secret sauce for us has always been, really, a combination of three things; a relentless focus on access, looking for all kinds of ways that we can lower barriers for people to earn their business education, combined with a low price point and extremely high quality. And I think those three things together really explain it. The market has taken off because I believe that prospective students know an incredible value when they see it. And that combined with all the other things that we’ve done beyond price to create accessibility, this program really has driven the growth.
John A. Byrne: And I should point out, because I didn’t mention this earlier, that you have 4,176 students enrolled in your IMBA program this fall from 49 states and 85 countries. That’s really phenomenal. 70 of the Fortune 100 companies are represented among the students. The student satisfaction rate of the program is 96%. The average raise for students during their time in the program is a hefty 22%. 61% of your students received a promotion, a job offer, or accepted a new position during the IMBA and you have about 4,000 learners having graduated from the program since its very start.
Those are all impressive numbers, but the thing that impresses me the most about the program are the different on-ramps that you’ve created. So this is a program unlike any other in the MBA world where you can take a little bite of it at a little bit of a time and use that bite as a fundamental piece of what may come later if, in fact, you choose degree. Brooke, can you describe what is often referred to, an academic term, as a stackable degree?
Brooke Elliott: Yep, sure. Will do, John. Whenever we started this program back in 2016, we, with Coursera, conceived of the idea of a stackable program. And it started with each one of our credit-bearing courses that are included in the IMBA and our other degrees have a MOOC-based component. And so on the Coursera platform, learners can engage with the MOOC, they can walk away with a certificate, but then that MOOC, they receive that credit and they can pull it forward if they decide later to enroll in our program. So the first part was the MOOC. They can take that MOOC, then they can enroll in a single credit-bearing course and receive credit from the University of Illinois. If they just want to try out what online education is like, then they can take that single course and now they can stack it into what we call a graduate certificate.
That was something that we created in the last year. A graduate certificate is a recognized credential from the University of Illinois. It’s comprised of 12 credit hours and each of those courses and those credit hours also you see in our degree. So a learner could go from a MOOC on Coursera, stack it into a single credit-bearing course, they could stack that single credit-bearing course into a 12-credit-hour campus graduate certificate, again, a recognized credential, and then at any point in time, they could take that campus graduate certificate and those 12 credit hours and they could stack it into the IMBA.
One other innovation that we’ve had during the last 12 months, during the pandemic, because we saw tremendous demand, we launched a fully online master’s of science and management. And so you can actually stack a MOOC to a single course, to a campus graduate certificate, to a master’s in management, you can complete that degree, and then stack that entire degree into the MBA. And so you’re halfway there. And we just believe it provides tremendous flexibility for a learner to proceed through education not in a linear path, but on their own terms.
John A. Byrne: Now, Jeff, this is really, to me, the future of higher education, and yet there are so few universities or colleges that have done this. Why?
Dean Jeff Brown: Well, I agree with you that it is the future. I think the demands of the workforce are such that people are going to need the ability to come back at any time in their career and access content that is relevant to them at that point in their lives. And I think we are seeing, very slowly, more and more institutions start to recognize that and adapt, but let’s be honest, we’ve been doing the degree model for 800 years.
And institutions are, by their nature, I don’t mean this in a political sense, but they’re conservative in terms of how quickly they change. We have lots of processes and procedures and governance processes in place to protect the core of the university, which really is to preserve excellence, to preserve the role of faculty and governing institution and so forth. And that has a lot of benefits to it, but it does mean that change comes about slowly. And I think one of the things that has really distinguished what we’ve done is that we have found a way to be agile and nimble and innovative in this space. It hasn’t been without some difficulties along the way, but I think more and more schools will follow.
I’ve said elsewhere that schools that don’t figure this out, I think, are really going to put themselves at risk in the long term because degrees aren’t going to go away, but I think the era in which degrees are pretty much the only thing that higher ed institutions are in the business of doing, I think that world has passed us by and that what we’re going to see is that most of the growth heading into the future is going to come from sub degrees, credentials, micro credentials, and things of that nature. And so we’re trying to help set the standard, set the pace, and do it with a continued increase on quality, on academic excellence, as well as access, which is where we started.
John A. Byrne: I know that one of the difficulties in offering or disassembling the courses in a degree and selling them to students is the whole issue of academic credit. So credit bearing is a big deal. Even among the universities that have been able to disassemble their degree programs and offer courses online or even in person, they seem to be reluctant to offer academic credit. Why is that?
Dean Jeff Brown: Well, academic credit comes along with the idea that we have taken a lot of additional steps to assure that a learner has actually learned the material, whether that’s done through testing or writing papers, but various forms of assessment to ensure that the student hasn’t just casually watched videos, but has actually engaged with the material and met the learning objectives of the course. When someone has done that, they have then earned academic credit for the course.
And that, to me, is a really important signal to anyone that might consume those credits in the form of actually looking to see if somebody has academic credit, a certificate, a degree, or what have you. It is what distinguishes what we do from purely the MOOC approach, which is, of course, how we started in our relationship with Coursera because, as you know, John, there are thousands of people that will casually interact with MOOCs and they learn something from that. I’ve watched MOOCs, myself, but there’s a difference between watching it. paying attention versus actually trying to rigorously apply that material to a new setting, to really study the material, to make sure you can pass an assessment and so forth.
And to me, that’s the difference. And so I do think that the credit-bearing nature of courses is something that’s important and valuable and it is also something that a university has a comparative advantage in doing relative to a lot of content providers out there in the world. To some extent, anybody can throw a MOOC up, maybe not on any given platform, like Coursera has their standards and so forth, but there are bite-sized bits of content out there all over the place that vary in quality. And I think it’s important for academic institutions to maintain our emphasis on excellence and credit is one way of doing it.
John A. Byrne: Right. Now, Brooke, what I didn’t mention is one of the most attractive features of the program, and it has been from the very beginning, and that is the price. You’re offering the IMBA for a little more than $23,000. That’s a total cost. And for some people, you’re even granting scholarships. How can you do that? How can you offer an MBA degree for less than $25,000?
Brooke Elliott: Part of it goes back to our mission. We are a land grant institution, so it is mission consistent for us to offer high-quality, flexible education at an affordable price. And when it’s mission consistent, then campus leadership is on board, college leadership is on board and, I think what’s most important, our faculty are on board. And so you had all of these very intelligent individuals that were driven by the same mission and we recreated the degree model.
So we didn’t simply take the model for our residential MBA and put it online. We thought very differently about how to serve learners at scale. And that started with thinking about a stackable model, but also, we’ve wholly changed how we deliver a course. The course model is very distinct. At our maximum, we served almost 1,500 individuals in a single course, but we did that because we innovated early where we have a tiered course structure. We have a lead or a co-lead set of faculty members who are very top tenured faculty. A lot of times, we have an associate instructor and we have anywhere from 30 to 50 course assistants and we heavily utilize technology.
And so it’s that combination of this tiered course model, plus leveraging and being very innovative in the technology space to deliver at scale in a way that makes it also affordable for us. We need to be able to continue to invest in what we do and innovate, but it’s very important to us that we keep the price low so that it’s accessible to those both domestically and internationally.
John A. Byrne: The other interesting thing that, actually, your learners have the option to pay as they go. It’s not like, when you sign up for a semester, you have to pay the full entire semester upfront.
Brooke Elliott: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And so I think the pay as you go feature is extremely attractive to learners. We also have tremendous flexibility so that a learner could enroll in one eight-week term and not enroll in the next eight-week term because almost all of our learners are working professionals. One other thing that our learners have utilized heavily is there are a lot of tuition or education benefits from their employers. And whenever your degree is priced at under $23,000, you can utilize those benefits to pay for the entire degree and also continue to pay perhaps later, even after you graduate, to get a campus graduate certificate through utilizing those tuition reimbursement benefits. So it’s really just an outstanding feature.
John A. Byrne: Jeff, were you going to say something before?
Dean Jeff Brown: You touched upon what I was going to touch upon, but I just wanted to reinforce where Brooke started, which is I tell people all the time, we did not price this program to maximize profit or to maximize revenue, we priced it to maximize our mission. And what I mean by that is we care deeply about access, but obviously, we recognize we need to cover our costs. And so it is the scale that allows us to do it. We couldn’t price a program at $25,000 if we were only serving 100 students because there’s a lot of infrastructure; the studios, the faculty time, a huge team of teaching and learning experts, and videographers, and the folks running the studios. It’s a massive team effort, but with the scale that we’re operating at, we’re able to do it in a cost effective manner. And we’ve just made the decision to pass almost the entirety of that savings on to the students, themselves.
John A. Byrne: One thing that also bears pointing out is the fact that most online degree programs pull from a radius of roughly 150 miles from the given campus, even though they can be taken from anywhere in the world. Your price and your brand and the quality of the program has allowed Gies to basically break that model because you have 49 states that you have students from and 85 countries, which really totally breaks the online model of this 150-mile radius to draw students from. What do you attribute to that? Is it, in fact, it’s such a bargain, number one, and number two, the brand is so strong that you’re able to draw, from all over the world, students?
Dean Jeff Brown: I think you just answered your own question, John. With all due respect to all of our other great educational institutions out there, I think the value that we provide is unparalleled. We really have taken our very best faculty and we’re a highly regarded research institution. So these are thought leaders in their field. We’ve put them in the classroom, we’ve done it in a way that works around a student’s schedule, provides them immense flexibility to jump in and out of the program. We offer live sessions at various times of day so they can work around their busy work lives and their family lives. We’ve done everything that we can to make it possible, for a smart, motivated student who’s willing to work hard, we’ve made it possible for them to earn their degree.
And as you said, it’s coming from one of the great public institutions anywhere in the world and we’ve made it incredibly affordable. So I’d be disappointed if the world didn’t recognize the incredible value that we’ve created and we were very intentional about it. We’ve already spoken about our land grant mission as a public university, as a land grant institution. Our chancellor, Robert Jones, talks often about a global land grant mission and we view this as part of that. The majority of our students are from the United States and we do have a disproportionate number of them from here in Illinois, but we really take seriously the idea that we’re educating the world.
Brooke Elliott: And I’ll just add in, I think, at every decision point, we choose inclusivity over exclusivity, and we believe that inclusivity is synonymous with quality, which is not how academic institutions necessarily have thought about it. And so when you’re purposeful and that’s your decision rubric, really amazing things can happen.
John A. Byrne: Yeah, that’s really true. And I wonder, in terms of stackability and the on-ramps into the program, what you’ve seen so far and how you think that might change with the introduction of the 12-credit graduate certificate. What are your conversion rates?
Brooke Elliott: So we just launched the campus graduate certificate in August and so we haven’t had anyone actually complete one of those credentials.
John A. Byrne: Sure.
Brooke Elliott: So we don’t yet know the conversion rate. I will tell you, I know from our relationship with Coursera that our MOOC conversion rate into degrees is the highest on their platform. So our MOOC learners convert to our degrees at a higher rate than any other degree partner that Coursera has. Historically, from the beginning, you could stack a single course into the degree, and our conversion rate on a single course into a degree is in excess of 70%.
So once an individual has tested what we do and they’ve seen the quality that we offer and the flexibility that we offer, there’s a very high inclination that they’ll pursue the degree, although, John, Jeff made this point a little bit earlier, the campus graduate certificates are also meant to serve learners who may not want to seek a graduate business degree or they may already hold a graduate business degree. We believe that our alums may be some of the learners, I think, in mass that actually pursue these types of credentials because they know the quality that we offer.
John A. Byrne: Exactly. That’s a really impressive conversion rate on the single courses. Were you even surprised by that, Jeff?
Dean Jeff Brown: I will tell you, John, I have been positively surprised by almost everything we’ve done in this program since we’ve launched. I think, if you went back to when I was a brand new dean in 2015 and you asked me to give not an optimistic, but just a straight assessment of where we would be in terms of student satisfaction, in terms of retention rates and graduation rates, and as well as these kind of statistics, I don’t think that any of … We knew we had something good here, but it has exceeded our expectations.
And I attribute that to the faculty and the staff who have worked so hard on this program and have brought their own creativity to bear on it and have really poured their passion into it. And I really mean everybody that’s involved. There are hundreds of people in our college that have contributed to the success of these programs, from the folks that are running the cameras, to the people that are editing videos, to the course assistants, as well as obviously faculty and leadership. So yes, I was surprised, but I guess I should stop being surprised because we just seem to keep delivering really, really great results.
John A. Byrne: So Brooke, if I were to ask your current students what they like most about the program, what are the three things that they would likely tell me?
Brooke Elliott: Yeah. I think it starts with what we’ve been talking about, affordability, and it’s really a return on value, though. So it’s not just affordability, it’s really that ROI. And so we offer tremendous value at a very affordable price point. I think that they would also talk about the tremendous flexibility that we offer, the ability to pay as you go, the ability to enroll in one eight-week term and not the next, the ability to watch live sessions at multiple times throughout the day and ability to even not participate in the live session, but watch it archived. We have a lot of active duty military. Actually, our 10th largest representation from an employer is the Air Force. And it’s because an active duty military member, because they can watch the live sessions archive, can actually complete the degree in a very timely manner.
And then the last part that I’ll talk about, and maybe this is a little bit surprising to some, not to me, because it’s an online program, really is the engagement. And so I believe a lot of individuals might say there’s no way an online program could be as engaging as an in-person or residential program, and that’s just not true. It’s through the use of live sessions, through the use of technology, through different events that we hold, iConverge, and John, you’ve attended iConverge multiple times, where individuals come back to campus. Graduation, where individuals come. We offer in-person iConnects and immersions all over the world.
And so we provide a tremendous opportunity for individuals even in the online program to come together in person, but for those that can’t, we offer technology so that they can engage in an online atmosphere. On Workplace, which is one of the platforms that we use from the very beginning, where students can virtually interact, it’s really like an internal social media platform, students have formed over 3,000 study groups since inception. And so it’s really amazing to see how the students will build the network. And so they talk about that, I would say, probably almost more than anything about why they’re so excited and happy to be in this type of program.
Dean Jeff Brown: Can I give a little perspective on that, John?
John A. Byrne: Yeah, please do.
Dean Jeff Brown: When we first launched this program back in January of 2016, I remember … I’m pretty active on social media, beast for a dean, and a lot of my colleagues across the country were skeptical of what we were doing precisely because of what Brooke said. Some of them were like, “MBA programs, it’s all about networking and you’re not going to be able to do that in an online setting.”
And the one group I didn’t give enough credit to in my prior answer was the students, themselves, is they have fully embraced this program, and especially those early cohorts who built networks and engagement opportunities that we hadn’t even foreseen. And we’ve been able to roll those forward and the next generation of students comes along and leverages that and improves it and builds it, themselves, and so forth.
And that networking has been enormously powerful. You’ve seen the numbers and you’ve quoted some of the numbers about people finding jobs through the program and so forth, but if you think about it, if you go to a traditional residential two-year MBA program, you’re interacting with amazing folks who have done amazing things and will do amazing things going forward, but right now, they’re full-time students. In our program, you’re interacting with people who are in the process of doing really amazing things in their current jobs, their current roles all around the world, and it’s incredibly powerful.
John A. Byrne: Well, congratulations. Really, it’s an amazing achievement, not only since 2016, but also how you’re improving the stackability of the degree, the on-ramps, the different ways to take advantage of a degree and, frankly, making it accessible and affordable to everyone in the world, which is unheard of. Jeff, thank you so much. Brooke, thank you, as well. Looking forward to seeing the two of you again, probably at another iConverge, or who knows? I love visiting the campus. In fact, I think I have a scheduled visit to see your namesake teach a course.
Dean Jeff Brown: That’s fantastic. And you’re welcome here anytime. In fact, if we haven’t already, I’d love to invite you for our groundbreaking of our new facility that we’re going to open up. We’re going to have a groundbreaking this spring. There’s all kinds of great, exciting things going on here, but above all, John, I just want to thank you. We’re really honored by this recognition and we certainly appreciate the time that you have taken to really get to know our program. So thank you.
John A. Byrne: Thank you.
Brooke Elliott: Thank you, John.
John A. Byrne: Thank you, Brooke. So there you have it, the IMBA at the Gies College of Business, the MBA of the Year, truly innovative approach to higher education and the MBA degree. And you won’t find out there, frankly, another online MBA or any MBA that is more affordable, more accessible, and more innovative in terms of how you can get it, take it, and lead up to it. This is John Byrne with Poets&Quants. Thanks for watching.
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