Innovation: How To Build A Stackability Strategy At Your Business School

stackable courses and degrees

“You can think of stackability as individual Lego pieces,” explains Brooke Elliott, Gies executive associate dean of academic programs. “Then you can put these blocks together in all kinds of ways and build out the type of education you need.”

For years, business school deans have talked about decoupling courses from degrees to tap into the growing need for on-demand knowledge and skills. But few business schools have successfully adopted a decoupling blueprint and linked it with an effective stackability strategy.

On the leading edge of innovation in this area, however, is the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois. It has been leveraging its partnership with Coursera since 2016 when the school launched its disruptively priced iMBA program at a cost of under $24,000.

But it has only been in the past year or two that Gies has really made good on the full promise of stickability. In Fall 2022, the College announced that graduates of its online Master of Science in Management (iMSM) and Master of Science in Accountancy (iMSA) can apply the 36 hours it takes to complete those degrees toward the 72-credit-hour iMBA degree. Gies also has now launched a portfolio online graduate certificates with more set to go live this spring. Learners can complete each of these in four-to-eight months, earning credit that can be applied toward any of its three online degree programs.


Brooke Elliott leads the online initiative at Gies College of Business

Brooke Elliott  at Gies College of Business

“You can think of stackability as individual Lego pieces,” explains Brooke Elliott, executive associate dean of academic programs. “Then you can put these blocks together in all kinds of ways and build out the type of education you need.”

To build out its stackable strategy, Gies had to create degrees in a modular way with courses that stack together to comprise the finished product. Courses are designed with a clear beginning, middle, and end – and learning objectives that bring all learners to a similar level of strength by the end.

Because each course is specifically designed to be able to stand alone, the college is able to reduce the need for prerequisites and allow learners to take courses and certificates in almost any order so they can build the learning experience that best fits their personal life and professional needs.

With the cost of higher education a major concern, stackability acknowledges that a student’s time and money are important. “Being able to take the credits you’ve earned and apply them toward another credential gives you a head start on achieving your next goal, and it means you won’t need to retake courses you’ve already completed or pay unnecessary tuition,” says Elliott.


Just ask Andrew Allen, a senior financial analyst at Grainger in Chicago. Allen earned his master’s degree in accounting science in Gies’ residential program in 2020. Armed with that degree, he joined the audit practice at Deloitte, rising from an audit and assurance assistant to a senior.

Allen joined Grainger in 2020, landing his senior financial analyst role in customer solutions. His transition from audit at an accounting firm to a finance role for a manufacturer. He now supports a vice president, a half dozen regional directors and ultimately 150 managers and supervisors over 1,200 operational workers.

The need for broader management skills quickly became apparent and Gies iMBA was the ideal solution for Allen. He could continue to hold down a job he loved, expand his skills well beyond the technical accounting knowhow he already brought to the job and best of all he could stack his previously earned credits into the online program. Doing so allows him to meet half of the credit requires of the 72-credit iMBA, immediately cutting its cost to less than $12,000 from $23,904. But because Grainger is helping to subsidize his education, Allen will ultimately pay just 20% of the cost or a mere $2,400 for his MBA.

“Stacking was key,” says Allen, who started the iMBA program this fall. “I chose the iMBA because of the great feedback I got about it. But I come from a dirt-poor background. I looked at there schools but once I saw the price, I said, ‘I’m not paying for that with my salary.’ I needed something to supplement by accounting knowledge and stackability into the iMBA was my first option. It will cost me just a few thousand.”

Padmarchana Kandi, 41, earned her Gies master’s in management program online from Seattle in May and immediately enrolled in the college’s iMBA program, largely because she wants to move into product management and can roll all the 36 credits she picked up in the MiM into the iMBA. “Even a few credits would have helped me,” she says, “but I could transfer all my credits.”


Guarav Sachdev, 32, who has spent ten years in information technology, was in a similar position. He, too, earned the Gies MiM, graduating in December of 2022, and rolled right into the iMBA in January of this year, stacking his 36 credits into the MBA to cut the coursework and the costs in half.

Upon his graduation with the MiM, he won a promotion at Qualcomm in San Diego to a staff systems analyst. He now finds himself in more of a management role and believes an MBA is the next step to further enhance his career.

“The ROI, the community and the networking we have, made it an obvious path,” he says. “Now I’m in management and applying MBA skills helps me toward my career goal of some day getting into a C-suite job.”


At the top of Gies’ stackability funnel is the prerecorded material the school has placed on Coursera. Gies now offers 113 noncredit courses online, ranging from 3D Printing Applications to Understanding Financial Statements.

“Anybody in the world can browse the Coursera website and either take an entire course worth of material or just sample what you want,” adds Elliott. “The free video doesn’t give you any credit, but you get a lot of great content.”

The next step in that funnel is taking a course for university credit. Currently, there are 51 for-credit courses in the catalog in 13 different subject areas from accounting to supply chain. Paying the $1,328 to $6,800 per course gets students access to the live sessions and for the course and graduate credit at Illinois. You can do that without signing up for a degree. You can then transfer that credit to another program or you can apply to the iMBA or iMSA (online master’s in accounting) having already successfully completed one of the required courses.


Then, there are the graduate for-credit certificates. Currently, prospective students can sign up for 11 certs, most of which can be completed in four to 12 months at a cost of $3,984 to $10,200 (with the most expensive certificates in accounting and taxation).

The $3,984, fully online Value Chain Management certificate, for example, boasts five annual start dates and can be completed in as little as four months or as long as a year. Students get three courses in the cert program: Managerial Accounting, Marketing Management, and Operations Management.

All the for-credit courses include weekly live sessions, assessments, group projects, office hours, and exams. They build on the foundational content developed by Gies faculty and hosted on Coursera.

And then, finally, there are the three online degree options. Students can stack credits from the for-credit courses or the graduate certificates directly into any of Gies’ online business degrees. In several cases, Gies is now seeing graduates of its residential Master’s in Accounting degree opt into the iMBA as well as graduates of its Master’s in Management program go for the MBA after completing their MiM.


Learners who complete the iMSM program, and then apply and are accepted into the iMBA program, can take all 36 MSM credit hours and put them toward the 72-credit-hour iMBA.

“The great thing about stackability is it allows you to try things out,” adds Elliott. “You can pick certain courses or specializations without committing to the full degree. That’s the magic, and it’s very different than the other online programs that exist.”

Thus far, Gies says that 3.3 million learners have accessed its MOOCs on Coursera. Currently, the college has 206 students taking for-credit courses, 190 more in certificate programs that only started this year, and 5,156 in its three online degree programs.

“Our stackability strategy is working,” says Elliott.

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