If you’re interested in pursuing an MBA, online or not, you’ll want to stick around because this is the first article of a multi-part series where I’ll be walking you through my online MBA experience from start to finish to give you some detailed perspective that you might be able to learn from to help you make your decision.
In this particular article, I’ll walk you through exactly why I chose the online route, and specifically, why I chose the iMBA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Year 2018 A.D.
So it was 2018, a much more simpler time than today, and I was a product manager for one of our commercial laptop brands, and was having a great time doing it, it was challenging, enjoyed the people I worked with, and my career was heading in the direction that I wanted. Now, although I worked with many that had MBAs, not having an MBA hadn’t a barrier at this point in my career.
And to be honest, I didn’t see it holding me back anytime soon. But, one can never be too sure.
So I had been doing some casual research over the few years prior and just looking at various MBA programs, not even online, but full-time on campus, just out of curiosity. It’s a common path for a lot of folks I knew, so I figured it’s something worth looking into.
The cost of a top ranked MBA – reality hits hard!
However, looking at some of the top MBA programs here in the US, I was staring down a total cost of $200K, not including two-years of foregoing an income!
Folks, to put into perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to the median price ($226,800) of a home in the US. That is insane! And a home is an asset that you own, has a hard value, and can appreciate over time. AND you can live in it! You can’t live inside of a degree – it’s just not possible.
So then I asked, ok, if these top programs are demanding this much money, what is the return on investment (ROI)? What kind of salary can one expect upon completion?
For the top programs, it appears that the average salary is $165K, which is pretty compelling, except when you consider that is certainly no guarantee. You could get more of course, but you could also get less, and we might imagine the lower end of that being $105K, which is the average for MBAs as a whole.
Now, where I was in my career with my salary, and what I thought I might be able to achieve in the next few years on my own, the financial outcome of obtaining an MBA from a top program was far from justified in spending $200K.
There wouldn’t have been much of an incremental increase from where I was projecting to be, and really this is how you should calculate the ROI.
How much you make now vs how much you can expect to make. The difference is your incremental increase, which is what you should compare to the cost of a program.
What are my alternatives?
So then I looked at other programs that weren’t quite as highly ranked, but still extremely reputable and great schools, with price tags at about half of what top programs charged. But with that, the average salary expectation compared to a top school, also drops a little bit, so still back at square one with exactly how much additional benefit it would get me for the cost
Apart from price, there’s still the issue of having to stop working for 2 years (not only do you lose that income, but you also lose 2 years’ worth of potential work experience).
I also might’ve had to relocate for a period of time, and focus completely on school and having to be somewhere at a certain time where at this point in my life, I’ve got more obligations than I did when I was going through undergrad.
So there just wasn’t a lot of flexibility.
With that, I had all but dropped the idea of pursuing an MBA. For my circumstances, it was unaffordable, inflexible, and wouldn’t have been a good return on my investment.
Online MBA, you say?
Now back to 2018, I had been doing courses here and there on Coursera, which is an online learning platform. Much to my curiosity, I noticed the platform was partnering with universities to offer masters degrees online. Coursera, in this case, served as a platform through which the university could deliver some of its content, while using other platforms like Blackboard for assignments and Zoom for live video sessions.
I was very intrigued, and came across the iMBA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Now upfront just to clear any confusion, iMBA is the way the school branded their online MBA offering. The degree you get is a true-to-form MBA.
So this was a university I was somewhat familiar with – it’s the flagship university for Illinois, much like the University of Texas at Austin is for Texas. Great reputation, but didn’t know much about the MBA program itself.
At the time, it was a Top 50 program, which in my mind is fine because one, outside of the top MBA programs, the rankings of a specific program mattered to an extent, but it mattered less to me than the reputation of the university as a whole. That being said, still something I looked at.
However, here’s what blew my mind: the ENTIRE program was $22K. It is a fraction of the cost of just about any other program out there, including other reputable online MBA programs!
If I go back to my original assumption about the average MBA salary being $105K, I’d consider this $22K a very worthwhile investment. This was the first time that I’ve ever seen an online MBA from an established, reputable university, where price wasn’t a significant barrier.
Where I’m extra fortunate here is that my employer has a tuition reimbursement policy such that, this program would be close to absolutely free. And with this, it was the first time I was able to ever seriously consider getting an MBA.
The choice was a no-brainer!
It was close to being a complete no-brainer, and the situation appeared to good to be true that I consulted with a few folks and got their feedback and asked “is there anything I’m missing with my strategy here?” I saw this as an absolute win!
Now for me, it wasn’t about me wanting to switch companies or career paths, it was about developing my skills and learning from others in other industries, and applying what I learn in my career.
*Hearing other people’s perspectives that have been in their industries for a decade or so, would be very interesting to me. And the program happens to attract a lot of folks like me who are mid-career professionals with a good number of years under their belt, so compared to other full-time programs that attract, on average, professionals still early in their careers, the students here offer a deep and diverse experience base from which to draw, which is a highlight of this program.
To add to all this, I mentioned earlier that I believed I could pursue opportunities and advance my career without an MBA, but at the end of the day, my rationale is this: I would never want a lack of an MBA to hold me back. If having an MBA gives me an advantage, or at minimum, keeps me competitive in a rapidly evolving job market, then I should certainly explore that.
After researching everything there is to research about online MBAs and other programs, this was the only viable path to a quality MBA. So I applied, and was fortunate enough to be accepted and as of this video, I’m more than halfway done with the program, on a 3-year track.
What are your reasons?
Now everything you just heard was my thought process behind it all – other folks may have different reasons for pursuing an online MBA or specifically this program. And there may be folks out there where a full-time on-campus program gives them more of what they need to achieve their career or financial goals.
Now I mentioned this was part one in a multi-part series – in upcoming articles I’ll talk about my experience in the program and explore different elements of it in greater detail, so if you want to hear more about that, make sure to check back weekly as I continue to post more content.
Thank you for reading!