Poets&Quants’ MBA Program Of The Year For 2022: Gies’ iMBA

MBA of the year

Larry Gies with iMBA students at his namesake college of business at the University of Illinois

The MBA program of the future will be highly flexible and innovative. You can start it by taking a single course at a time for credit, or a sequence of courses that earn you a certificate in a highly sought-after field from digital marketing to business analytics. It’s online so you don’t have to leave your job. You can pay for it as you go through it, course by course. Besides, it’s highly affordable and accessible, too.

That MBA of the future is here now and it is Poets&Quants‘ MBA Program of the Year. It is the iMBA from the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois. From its start in 2016, students have been able to tip-toe into the program course by course. But in the past year, the school has launched yet another on-ramp to the degree, a pair of fully online, credit-bearing graduate certificates, with up to six more options within the year.

These 12-credit-hour certificates are designed to reach learners who already hold an undergraduate degree and who don’t necessarily want, or need, a full graduate degree. Instead, the certificates – in Accounting Data Analytics and Strategic Leadership & Management – are built around specific skills or competencies that learners can use for personal improvement and professional advancement.


For being a true pioneer in the stackable degree field and bringing out the fastest-growing MBA program in the world, Gies iMBA is inventing the future of higher education today. From a standing start in 2016 with an initial cohort of 263 students, iMBA enrollment now totals 4,176 students who reside in 49 states and 85 countries. Some 70 companies out of the Fortune 100 are represented.

Gies is the sixth school to earn our annual distinction as the Program of the Year and only the second online experience to do so. Two years ago,  Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business got the nod for its highly innovative online MBA program. Last year, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business won for its two-year MBA program. In 2019, Washington University’s Olin School of Business was honored for its bold and radical revamp of the school’s full-time MBA experience. The University of Rochester’s Simon Business School won the honor for gaining STEM designation for its entire MBA program, the first to accomplish such a feat (see MBA Program Of The Year: Rochester’s New STEM Play). Cornell University’s Johnson School won our first MBA Program of the Year award for its Cornell Tech MBA in New York City (see Program of the Year: Cornell Tech’s MBA).

What do these different MBA options share? In some way, each reflects a reinvention of the conventional MBA degree. After all, aside from a business school’s location or culture, the MBA degree is nearly a commoditized academic experience. What everyone learns in a world-class MBA program is pretty much the same. You take a core curriculum of business basics and then choose from a menu of electives that allow a deep dive into a field of your choosing. But Gies does something more, much more in its stackable iMBA degree.


Jeffrey R. Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois

Not only is the all-in cost for the iMBA just $23,000 but learners have the option to pay as they go by course instead of paying for an entire semester up-front. It would be easy to think that the price would result in program sacrifices that would lower student satisfaction. But that is not so. In fact, the student satisfaction rate for the program is a remarkable 96%. And the career outcomes of students and graduates are similar to far more expensive Executive MBA programs: 61% of students received a promotion, job offer, or accepted a new position during the iMBA, while the average raise for students during their time in the program is 22%.

Those positive stats aside, what sets the program apart from anything else on the market is the ability of a student to stack together credit-bearing courses taken one at a time or in a certificate offering and apply them to the degree. The conversion rate from a MOOC (massive open online course) into an online degree is the highest of any other option on the Coursera platform. Even more impressive, more than 70% of the students taking a single credit-bearing course end up stacking it into the iMBA.

That’s exactly what Condola King did. A University of Illinois undergrad who had majored in sociology, she started taking Gies courses through Coursera in 2017. After successfully completing five courses before actually enrolling in the iMBA in 2020. King graduated with a degree last year. “I would do it again and I would do it sooner,” she says now. “The program let me do the MBA on my time. And I paid for it out of pocket so it let me spread the cost out a bit. The MBA allowed me to be braver in conversations, and I feel like I am taken more seriously.”


Few could have imagined that the iMBA would become as successful as it has when it was first launched seven years ago in a partnership with Coursera, the online education platform. Being on that platform of available MOOCs exposed it to countless numbers of prospective students seeking online options. In the first 11 months after the launch, nearly a million visitors checked out the iMBA, with 260,000 active learners taking some part in the coursework and 27,000 earning a certificate. The upshot: Approximately 4,000 learners have already graduated from the iMBA program. With current enrollment topping 4,000, it is one of the largest online MBA programs in the world.

“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,” says Gies Dean Jeffrey Brown. “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.”

Many bureaucratic hurdles had to be overcome and massive investments had to be committed to making the program as flexible and innovative as it is. Unlike many other online degree programs that are 100% online and often taught by adjunct teachers, the iMBA boasts live online classes held weekly with the same professors who had taught in the school’s residential MBA and Executive MBA programs. Optional global and online immersions–along with annual on-campus gatherings–help to bring far-flung students together to forge closer bonds.


In leading the program through its explosive growth, one of the gutsiest decisions made by Dean Brown was not to participate in rankings of online MBA programs. As a result, the school’s iMBA is not listed among Poets&Quants rankings of online MBAs nor U.S. News & World Report’s ranking. Instead, Gies has relied upon word of mouth and the program’s reputation outside of rankings. 

The reason: Brown says he did not want to be excessively focused on a ranking that fails to give credit to a program that is both highly accessible and highly affordable. No rankings take into account the cost of a program and most rankings hurt schools that fail to reject the majority of candidates who apply. Gies says it admits 72% of its iMBA applicants. “Even if there was a perfect ranking out there for us, I don’t ever want our ability to be innovative and agile to be constrained by worrying about what some third-party set of metrics is telling us to focus on,” he says.

Instead, the school has built a webpage touting selected statistics on student satisfaction, recommendation rates, career outcomes, and student demographics. Gies says that its survey of students found that 91% would recommend the iMBA to others and that 95% applied what they learned at work. The accompanying list of student employers is impressive, including AT&T, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Caterpillar, and State Farm Insurance.

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