46 states, 56 countries represented in UI iMBA's first graduating class

46 states, 56 countries represented in UI iMBA's first graduating class

On Saturday, the University of Illinois will host a graduation ceremony for dozens of MBA students who may have never set foot on campus before.

These aren't your typical MBA students. They're "iMBA" students, part of an online-only, UI-taught MBA program, and 73 percent of them don't live in Illinois.

Most of these mothers, veterans and first-generation college students have life constraints preventing them from doing traditional coursework on campus. The average student brings 12 years of professional experience and is between 22 and 61 years old.

Out of the 114 admitted to the initial January 2016 term, 66 will graduate this month.

For Mike O'Flynn of Denver, the decision was the best he has ever made.

"It was phenomenal," O'Flynn said, praising specifically the level of connectivity the program offered, something he didn't expect going in. "I've taken online classes before, and you definitely feel like you're on your own on an island. But the iMBA is definitely not that."

O'Flynn said he remained highly engaged with his professors and with students in his class. He even meets with some students he's found around his area.

He said networking is crucial for anyone looking to get an MBA, and he probably got more networking opportunities with the iMBA than he would have found through an on-campus MBA program.

"I literally have relationships now in the hundreds of people. You'd think it would be a detriment in terms of networking when you take an online class, but it was a huge plus," he said.

To Gies College of Business Dean Jeffrey Brown, students like O'Flynn are pioneers.

"The first students who applied had to take a leap of faith," Brown said, acknowledging the hesitation some may have about entering a new program. "But we were blown away by the quality of the students, the significant work experience they had, the intellectual curiosity and their passion for learning what we were there to teach them."

The Gies College of Business' iMBA program was developed by the university to cash in on a fast-growing market for online MBAs and to give students the option of a more flexible and affordable degree. The price — $22,000 for a full iMBA — is a fraction of the university's full-time, on-campus MBA tuition of almost $60,000 for residents and has attracted 1,100-plus students from around the world.

The college manages to keep the price tag for the program low in part because of the record-breaking $150 million gift it received from Madison Industries founder Larry Gies in October 2017. Brown said the money went into the college just like any other philanthropic gift and will be used to further advance the college through "access, innovation and excellence."

The college gave out 40 percent more scholarship dollars to freshmen going to the UI this fall compared to awards freshmen received in 2017, he said.

The retention rate for the iMBA's inaugural class was "completely off the charts for an online program" at 92 percent, compared to a similar mid-90-percent rate for the on-campus program, Brown said.

That's because most of the students were using the iMBA as a way to advance in their careers. Most who have graduated from the program already have jobs and want to take the next step toward a managerial position at their company. They didn't want to quit working for two years to go back to school, Brown said, instead preferring to hone their skills while continuing to gain experience at work.

The new program has increased the college's visibility, too. Arshad Saiyed, executive director for online programs, said almost all the iMBA students live outside Illinois — in 46 states and 56 countries.

"We're able to reach a market we wouldn't have been able to serve with the residential programs," he said.

The university partners with Coursera — a California company that since 2012 has grown to include 31 million registered "learners" across the world — which serves as the platform for delivering programs like the iMBA.

Coursera's method of "stackable" courses as well as the opportunity to work through the degree from home are both seen as disruptors of the traditional MBA model.

Brown said the graduates are some of the biggest advocates for the program, and it has inspired a "viral awareness" for the way the program works as an education tool, not just the education itself.

"We've received global attention because this model was very innovative and different from anything that was out there," Brown said. "It's widely talked about at our peer institutions. And each time we open an application, the number of them we get has been growing with each round."

Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said students can earn certificates in specific areas along the way to completing a degree. In the iMBA, for example, students can earn certificates in digital marketing and accounting as they work toward a full MBA.

They can also take certificate programs without applying for the degree, adding more flexibility, Maggioncalda said. Coursera's massive "learner" base is "a big reason we're able to drop the cost," he said. "We are recruiting students from among the 32 million people already on our platform taking open online courses from the UI and other schools."

Online programs like the iMBA pique students' interest by giving them free access to massive open online courses through Coursera. It offers more than 2,600 courses and 230 specializations from universities such as the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University and the UI, mainly used for career advancement among 25- to 35-year-olds looking to take courses in business, data science and other fields.

Along with the iMBA, the UI offers master's degrees in accounting and computer science, with a specialization in data science for the CS degree, and two certificates in instructional design and digital marketing. It's already preparing to expand the iMBA model to other programs like business analytics and health care, adding to the list of courses offered through Coursera.

"It not only allows for more content for the people already in these programs," Saiyed said, "but we'll be able to reach more people in these marketplaces."