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Jul 21, 2020 2020-07 Business Administration Faculty Student

Quality, flexibility, affordability fuel astounding iMBA growth

More than 2,500 students have applied to join the iMBA at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business since the start of 2020, a 35 percent increase over 2019, making the groundbreaking online educational program one of the most sought-after business degrees in the nation.

As many MBA programs struggle, and even top-rated programs see declines in applicants, the phenomenal momentum of the Gies iMBA quickly made it one of the ten most popular destinations for business students, alongside renowned MBA programs at institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and MIT.

Designed from the ground up and launched in 2016, the iMBA brought together top scholars with educational experts and technological innovators to create a new kind of online education. Pairing a high-quality curriculum with a deeply engaging experience for students, the program grew from just 114 students in its first year to nearly 3,000 students last year.

“Gies set out to invent a new way of delivering a top-quality business education that would fulfill our mission of serving students in Illinois and around the world, in a way that meets their needs and the needs of today’s business world,” said Dean Jeffrey Brown. “We’ve disrupted our own industry, and the market has responded by rewarding us with demand and growth far beyond what we would have predicted.”

Satisfaction ratings near 100%

The iMBA curriculum includes both asynchronous content on the Coursera platform, and live, interactive sessions that both students and faculty say are more personal and engaging than many in-person classes they’ve taken or taught. Combined with online office hours and heavy on team projects that bring together participants from around the world, all at a price that is a fraction of what they would pay at most residential MBA programs, the iMBA consistently earns satisfaction ratings near 100 percent from students.

“Our students are nearly all working professionals, with more career experience than most MBA students. We give them the flexibility to assemble their credits and do their work on their own timetable, wherever they are, which allows them to get their education without pausing their careers or uprooting their families. We do it at a price that removes another barrier for many working professionals,” said Associate Dean Brooke Elliott, who oversees the strategy for Gies' online programs. “But none of that would matter if we were not providing a quality education and a compelling experience — that is at the heart of all this innovation.”

That compelling experience is drawing in increasingly large and diverse numbers of applicants. Eighteen percent of this year’s applicants reside outside the United States. Of the domestic students who have applied, nearly one-third (29%) are non-white, and 17% identify as an underrepresented minority.

Gies is expected to enroll another 1,000+ students this fall, bringing total iMBA enrollment near 4,000 students. And this fall when the next cohort completes the program, Gies will have reached a milestone of 1,000 graduates – an astounding number considering the program is not yet five years old.

“We want to admit as many students as we are able to teach at this same level of quality — that’s built into our mission. We want to make outstanding education widely available, not restrict it,” Elliott said.

53% receive promotion, job offer, or accept new position during iMBA program

College officials say student satisfaction and real-time return on investment are driving the tremendous growth in applications. A survey of 2019 graduates showed that 53 percent had received a promotion, job offer or accepted a new position during their time in the iMBA program, while graduates saw their pay increase an average of 20 percent during the course of their studies.

Gies recently published a comprehensive data set designed to measure the iMBA against its own mission and goals, so that prospective students, among others, can make their own assessment of the program. At the same time, the college announced that it would not take part in traditional online MBA rankings, which value different qualities.

The iMBA is the largest of several fast-growing online degree programs at Gies. The College, long known as a global leader in accounting, also offers a online master's in accounting (iMSA), which is also seeing 50% growth in applications year over year. This year Gies launched the iMSM, a master’s degree in management designed for students earlier in their careers, which is expected to enroll about 400 students in its first class.

All three programs are based on the same approach to online learning, supported by the same experts and custom-design process.

Gies leaders say they are also exploring the idea of offering free-standing, credentialed concentrations, which would allow students interested in a particular set of skills to take the same courses iMBA students take, and get a University of Illinois credential for those studies. If those students later enrolled in one of the master’s programs, those credits and concentrations could be applied toward the degree.