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NYU Stern | Mr. Development
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10 Business Schools To Watch In 2022

Gies College of Business Associate Dean Brooke Elliott oversees the school’s online programs

iMBA at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business

Here’s the tale of the tape at Gies’ iMBA program:

Student Satisfaction Rate: 97%

Student Retention Rate: 95%

Would Highly Recommend To A Friend: 94%

Those are the latest numbers from the University of Illinois iMBA program. Here are two more: 54% of students earned a promotion, job offer, or new job during the program, with graduates seeing pay rise by 21% on average.

All for just $22,500…and no hidden fees.

How could you pass that up? What do you have to lose?

Of course, iMBA alumni don’t think in terms of what they may have missed. Instead, they’re bullish about everything they have gained.

At a recent iConverge event sponsored by Gies, iMBA alumni were thrilled to dish on their experiences. Exhibit A: Christopher Gao, a dentist and entrepreneur from California, who praised the faculty. “The professors here are amazingly available. They are an incredible resource and they are curious about you. This is more than just a degree. It’s an experience.”

Richard Daniel, an operations manager at Verizon, echoes Gao’s sentiments. “As many students as there are, I never feel like I am one of 1,200,” he says. “The accessibility and support I receive makes it impossible to get lost.”

At the same time, Brett Coffee, a lawyer-turned-consultant, lauded how interactive the programming was. “I had done well at undergrad and at law school but was never great,” he admits. “Here I was at the top of my game. I watched the videos and then took the transcripts and edited them. I realized I learned very differently. My courses were also more Socratic than any law school experience. Here we always had to be on.”

The iMBA program has been a clear-cut success. That’s not to say taking the University of Illinois full-time MBA program online wasn’t a huge risk. It took months of behind-the-scenes one-on-ones between Dean Jeffrey Brown and stakeholders — faculty, alumni, and administrators — to persuade them to back it. After all, the school was “hemorrhaging money” — a program in a “crowded market” without a “distinctive” identity and lacking in scale according to notes Shelley Campbell, senior assistant dean of administration. For Brown, the pitch was simple: eventually shut down or channel resources online and enroll ten times the number of graduate students.

And Brown has lived up to his word. Launched in 2016, the initial cohort consisted of 116 students. Today, it has grown to over 4,600 students, not counting another 1,250 student enrolled in its iMSM and iMSA programs. This most recent cohort hails from 103 countries plus all 50 States (and DC).  Overall, the program boasts 9,000 learners, including 2,500 new alumni. Among this number, you’ll find 3,000 women and 1,200 underrepresented minorities who’ve been working towards their degree. Here’s a number that really reflects Gies’ online prowess: the program has converted a fourth of its MOOC learners into iMBA students — the largest number of any Coursera partner.

One key ingredient of this success is Jeffrey Brown himself, P&Q’s reigning Dean of the Year. After all, launching the iMBA was just about high level envisioning and allocating, but also down-in-the-mud motivating and following through.

“He is willing to speak and promote what he believes, Brooke Elliott, the school’s executive associate dean. “He talks about the disruption in higher education and how we cannot rest on our laurels. He says that what we are going to do will look different from what anyone expects. He isn’t apologetic and he isn’t asking people to come on board with him. He says this is what we are going to do, and the faculty are inspired by his vision and his confidence. Unlike other deans, he lays out a vision and then follows up with the resources. You can’t ask for much more than that.”

Illinois Gies has six iMBA studios on campus. The iMBA has revolutionized online business education, and not just because of its $22K price tag. File photo

More than that, he doesn’t view the iMBA as a finished product. Instead, he is unleashing innovations that are certain to shake up the business education landscape. For starters, the program is now furnishing micro-credentials, certifications that students can post on their Linkedin profiles to reflect their growth in the program. Not only is it a motivator, but it sends a clear signal to employees too, Elliott explains.

“It really ties back to how can we help our students have an impact on their careers now, not only when they are done with the program. With the micro-credential, they can clearly communicate to their employers what they are learning, and the students say their employers love it. That is low hanging fruit but other programs are not thinking that way.”

Gies is also using credentials as a “pathway” into the program, where students can apply the 12 credits they earn from certificates towards an advanced degree. At the undergraduate level, the program has increased the spots available for students to take online courses to pursue their business minor (along with introducing a required experiential course that pairs juniors with leading top companies, startups, and non-profits).

Like any fast-growing enterprise, the Gies iMBA is wrestling with scale. The program has grown to 60 faculty members who are supported by 70 teaching and learning staff and 300 teaching and course assistants. That doesn’t count 45 online program administrators. Of course, growth is a good problem to have, but its acceleration has forced the program to seek alternatives in areas such as grading. In the past year alone, iMBA enrollment has jumped by 1,700 students, which has required Gies to increase the number of faculty and administrators by 15 and 18 respectively. In addition, some classes now number 1,200 students who are supported by a legion of 60-80 course assistants.

That begs the question: How big can the iMBA get? More important: How can Gies keep the quality of the programming and the satisfaction of the alumni high while keeping the tuition costs low as growth stretches its infrastructure? Such questions are the grist for many case studies. In the case of Gies, Elliott notes, the answer is rooted in the mission.

“People ask all the time, ‘How big will you grow?’ Our mission is democratize education, to expand access to the highest quality education.  We will continue to do that as long as we can continue to deliver the same high quality degree and the same high quality content from our very best faculty. As long as that remains true, we won’t limit access and so far we haven’t had to.”

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