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Aug 25, 2021 Business Administration Faculty

Four “must ask” questions before starting an online MBA program

New online MBA programs are popping up seemingly every day, thanks to technological advancements and the unprecedented flexibility they offer – it was a trend undoubtedly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But not all online programs are created equal. So we asked Tawnya Means, Chief Learning Officer at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business, how you can discern which online program is right for you.

Gies’ online MBA program – the iMBA – was recently named the #1 Biggest B-School Innovation of the Decade by Poets&Quants. Priced at less than $22,500 all-in, the iMBA is designed and delivered by the top faculty and online learning experts at the University of Illinois, and it can be completed in 18-36 months. That’s a big reason why the iMBA has seen record demand and a 97% student satisfaction rate.

Means gave us four questions you should be asking before you pick an online program.

1. What am I going to do?

A program may have great faculty, high-quality videos, and a strong sequence of courses – but if you’re not engaged, then you’re going to have a solitary experience. At Gies, the online programs are career-curated; students take what they learn in highly interactive live sessions and apply it at their job the next day. In fact 95% of iMBA students apply what they learn in the program to their job.

“For learning to be transformative, it has to be experiential,” said Means, who joined Gies Business this fall after 20 years of furthering the teaching and learning goals of colleges and universities across the country. “I can provide you information, but if you don’t explore what that information means when applied in realistic and authentic situations, you haven’t really learned anything. As an example. being able to go into a simulation and apply what you’ve learned is key.”

2. What kind of meaningful interactions will I have with other people?

Engagement is key, and the best online programs offer opportunities to develop genuine connections with peers and faculty. At Gies, students participate in live class sessions with the College’s top faculty. Those sessions include breakout rooms and in-depth group work where learners can delve deeper into a topic with classmates from variety of industries all around the world. Those personal connections are a big reason why the Gies iMBA has a 93% retention rate – a number almost unheard of among online programs.

“There’s a big difference between being asked to post a certain number of times on a forum vs. making real connections with people,” Means said. “At Gies, we want students to feel part of an active community. Interacting with others is an extremely valuable piece of learning. We learn best when we have to explain an idea to someone else, when we defend an idea, or when we hear how others have applied an idea. Those elements are active in the best courses.”

3. Do I have options?

Many students care about the flexibility an online program can provide, and rightfully so, but often students think about that flexibility in terms of being able to view or attend a lecture whenever they want. The important question, according to Means, should go deeper than that.

“Online MBA programs, like the iMBA program here at Gies, appeal to working professionals because they offer unmatched flexibility, so you can integrate the program into your busy life,” said Means. “The best online programs, though, offer flexibility in the sequence of classes and elective tracks or concentrations. They also offer flexibility and choice in small ways, such as how you complete your assignments. Does the instructor require you to conduct a SWOT analysis on a pre-selected fictitious firm, or are you allowed to run that same exercise on your current employer?”

4. Will my MBA still be relevant for my next job?

At Gies College of Business, 54% of iMBA graduates say they received a promotion, job offer, or accepted a new position during their time in the program. Not only do they realize an immediate ROI, but they’re also thinking ahead to their next position. That’s why Means emphasizes the importance of making sure your degree will fit your future needs.

“Some programs were put ‘in the can’ three years ago, and the content doesn’t stay fresh,” she said. “From a program perspective, it’s a lot of work to keep material fresh – but it’s critical. There should be core pieces that never change – concepts like time value of money; in contrast, FinTech is changing every week. Make sure the program you choose is adaptable. You should make sure you’re asking good questions about how frequently content is refreshed.”