A Love Fest Of Passionate Believers For Gies’ iMBA

Eufemia Didonato

Brooke Elliott (right), wo leads the online programs at the Gies College of Business as an Associate Dean, poses with an iMBA student at iConverge for a selfie

Lucy Chang Evans couldn’t believe it. An MBA from a Big Ten university for just $22,500?

The former engineer and Secret Service agent wanted to transition into a new career and believed that an MBA was the ticket to that new life. Her online research led to the Gies College of Business iMBA program at the University of Illinois.

“Then,” says Evans, “I saw the price tag and said, ‘There’s something wrong with this. It was just too inexpensive for an MBA. But I talked to others and decided to give it a try.”

She was not alone. Among the hundreds of thousands of inquiries the school is receiving each year from would-be applicants, the most common questions revolve around the price. “They ask, ‘How are you doing this?,’ ‘Is this a trick?,’ ‘Are you hiding something?,’” says Aaricka Hellberg, assistant director of recruitment and admissions at Gies.

‘ONLINE IS AN EQUALIZER FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE INTERESTED IN GETTING AN MBA’

A former Secret Service agent, Lucy Chang Evans expects to graduate from the iMBA program next year

The answer: No, it is not a trick. There are no hidden charges that would make the total cost of the degree much higher. And the students who sign up for this experience have little negative to say about the program.

Expecting to graduate with her online MBA next year, Evans couldn’t be happier. “It has exceeded my expectations. Online is an equalizer for people who are interested in getting an MBA. It’s easy to network and make friends,” adds Evans, who has attended several meet-ups in homes, parks, and restaurants in her hometown of Naperville, Ill., where as many as 30 students are enrolled in the program.

Though an online MBA student, Evans is on the Urbana-Champaign campus, a quick 22-minute flight from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. She’s one of nearly 400 current, past and future iMBAs, including 17 international students from 13 countries, for what the school’s i-Converge event. It is a celebratory feast of sorts, where selfies and Gies swag, warm hugs and smiles are ever present among many who had only met virtually via Zoom. After last year’s event was cancelled due to COVID, this years vaccinated attendees were ebullient that they could show up in their orange-and-blue Gies’ face masks.

MORE THAN AN ACADEMIC CONFERENCE, iCONVERGE IS A LOVE FEST

Over the two-day event on Sept. 17 and 18th, there was no shortage of inspiring speeches and thoughtful lectures on everything from Designing for Disruption to Speaking With Intention, tours of labs, studios and the new Siebel Design Center. A series of brief narratives, witty, thoughtful, and intimate, delivered by eight iMBA alums from Turkey and Japan to Boston and Chicago. The obligatory drone class photo was snapped on a sunny afternoon, with many eagerly awaiting the organized tailgate and networking gathering for Friday night’s Illinois vs. Maryland football game.

But the main event during this lingering pandemic had little to do with the formal agenda. They came simply to see each other. For months on end, their primary contact with their classmates and their professors was on a computer or mobile phone. They endlessly Zoomed, Slacked and WhatsApped each other. Now, they would actually meet in the flesh the familiar images who appeared as pixels on their screens.

More than an academic gathering, iConverge is a love fest. Students laughingly swap stories of riding through tough courses like Statistics and Managerial Accounting, joke about being exhausted during late-night team meetings on the Internet, and absorbing video lectures on airplane trips, and bombing exams. It is hard to tell that almost all of these students never met each other until now,

‘I KNOW WHAT A FAIR PRICE WAS WHEN I WAS LOOKING FOR THE DEGREE’

Karen Finocchio Lubeck, a 2019 iMBA graduate, has been to three iConverge events

For Karen Finocchio Lubeck, who was in the program’s third cohort and graduated with her iMBA two years ago in 2019, this is the third time she has attended iConverge. Why does she keep coming back? “It’s the people,” she says. “It’s the faculty. It’s my alumni friends and the new people in the program.”

With a background in higher education consulting in Boston, she concedes that the total cost of the program, now $22,500 from the original $22,000, was an attractive lure. “The price,” she says, “was very important because I know what a fair price was when I was looking for the degree. But then I was blown away by the quality of the experience.”

That value proposition has made the Gies’ online program the fastest growing MBA in the world. From an initial cohort just 116 students in 2016, the program has now grown to a current enrollment of 4,288 iMBA students. Every stat on the program reinforces the notion that it is one of the most affordable and accessible quality MBA programs ever: the 95%-plus retention rate across all the program’s cohorts, the 97% student satisfaction level, and the 94% of students who say they would highly recommend the program to a friend.

UNIMAGINABLE SCALE ACHIEVED IN AN MBA PROGRAM

How has Gies been able to achieve that level of success while scaling the program to an enrollment of what will likely be 5,000 students by year’s end? “All of my team works 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” laughs Associate Dean Brooke Elliott who oversees the college’s online programs. Chair of Gies’ accounting department, Elliott took on her leadership role in February of 2020, just as COVID-19 changed everything. Applications soared even beyond any reasonable expectation and enrollment ballooned to the nearly 4,300 current students from 2,600 in March of 2020. In a single year, enrollment increased at a pace that was expected to take three years.

Yet, in the middle of all that scaling, Elliott even managed to launch in the midst of the pandemic an new online graduate program, a master’s degree in management. The full launch occurred in October of last year and the program is just short of 600 new students, including Gies’ Dean Jeff Brown’s own daughter. It was the most successful launch of any graduate program in the history of the University of Illinois. Along with the school’s online master’s in accounting, Gies now counts more than 5,700 graduate students online from zero just six years ago.

To handle that explosive growth, Gies had to immediately boost its investments in online education at a pace unheard of in academia. While colleges and universities all over the world struggled with budget cutbacks due to the impact of the pandemic on enrollments, Gies had to throw everything it had at its program to scale effectively. The online program administrative staff now numbers 45, up from 27 just 18 months ago. The core teaching and learning team has doubled to 70 from 36 in that same timeframe. Some 60 faculty members now teach online, including at least 15 professors who hadn’t taught virtually before March of last year. Once you add in the more than 300 course assistants, there are now more than 475 people working together to support Gies’ three online degree programs.

Gies iMBA students pose for a drone photo shoot at the school’s iConverge event on the University of Illinois campus

‘THIS IS MORE THAN JUST A DEGREE. IT’S AN EXPERIENCE’

Dr. Christopher Go, a dentist near Los Angeles, used the iMBA program to help him launch a startup. He graduated in 2019.

That kind of massive scale is not possible without a few hiccups, but you wouldn’t know it from the enthusiastic group of students on campus for iConverge. “The secret to scaling for students is being connected to the professors,” says Dr. Christopher Go, 58, a Valencia, Calif., dentist who is also CEO of a startup called ActivTape. “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.”

Go entered the program in 2018 with an idea for a business, believing that he could essentially incubate a startup through the online MBA. “I had a product but didn’t know when to go with it,” he says. “In every track, I ended up learning something that was valuable to me.” He spent a lot of time in office hours with professors, testing out his concept for a medicinally infused Kinesiology tape to treat chronic pain. After his pitch to classmates and faculty, Go became known as “The Tape Man.”

He came to iConverge because of his gratitude for the program and the school from which he graduated in 2019. Besides, at a previous iConverge event, he was able to collide with a PhD student who is now engaged in his business. Even though he was in online classes with hundreds of other students, Go says he often felt as if the professors were directly speaking to him. During one session, he was yawning and the professor immediately called him out on it. “I swear he had me on a big screen,” laughs Go. And despite the size of those classes, he says he was able to closely connect with many classmates. “We have argued over Zoom and pretended our connection went bad and hung up on them.”

‘THE COST OF THIS PROGRAM IS SO REASONABLE I REALLY DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT ROI’

Matt Kessel, who will start the program next month, had been accepted to an Executive MBA program but decided to turn it down in favor of the Gies program. “I just saw the value of this program with broader participants from all over the world,” says Kessell, who is in his 50s and works in information technology in Salt Lake City, Utah. “I have less time to regroup the investment, and the cost of this program is so reasonable I really don’t have to worry about the ROI.”

Richard Daniel, who leads an operations team of 140 associates at Verizon in the New York area, had long wanted to do an MBA but life challenges forced him to put it off. The 47-year-old professional is married with a a six-year-old daughter. He considered the MBA programs at NYU Stern, Cornell and Syracuse but enrolled last October in the iMBA and hasn’t looked back. In fact, after his first eight-week term, he encouraged a Verizon colleague and friend to join. Daniel came to iConverge with him who started in January of this year.

Verizon offers tuition reimbursement of up to $8,000 a year, which will make the program virtually free for both Daniel and is friend. The size of some of his live Internet classes isn’t a bother to him. “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 GRADUATE LEVEL, ALL OF US WERE INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATED PEOPLE WHO REALLY WANT TO LEARN’

A former lawyer, Brett Coffee graduated from the iMBA program in December of 2020

Brett Coffee, a former lawyer who now works as a strategy consultant and CEO of his own firm, found the program’s pace and learning approach ideal. “I had done well at undergrad and at law school but was never great,” he says. “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.”

Coffee, who graduated at the end of last year, also found himself in groups with classmates from 19 different countries over the course of the program. Even at scale, he is now a total believer in virtual learning. “At the graduate level, all of us are intrinsically motivated people who really want to learn and you get excited by that.” His two favorite courses, Strategic Innovation and Fostering Creativity, he says, “were the best courses I have taken in my entire professional career.”

Even though Coffee is now an alum, he came to iConverge to meet classmates he had only seen on a computer screen. But there is a lot of feel-good stuff on the agenda. Dean Jeff Brown reminded attendees of the land grant mission of the university and promoted Gies’ three graduate degree programs online as the fulfillment of that mission to democratize higher education. “This is the place where great things happen,” he told them. “We feel immense pride in your accomplishments.”

‘IF IT WERE APPROPRIATE TO PUT AN EXPLETIVE BEFORE INCREDIBLE I WOULD’

Elliott told the assembled group that the program’s affordability and accessibility has allowed it to be a leader in diversity with a third of the iMBA students being composed of underrepresented minorities, a diversity goal met by few business schools. She rushed through even more impressive stats: the high percentage of students and graduates who have gained increased responsibility or promotions at work as well as double-digit increases in pay. She called the numbers incredible and then quipped, “If it were appropriate to put an expletive before incredible I would.” The crowd laughed out loud.

Perhaps the most inspiring talk of the day was delivered by Cedric D. Thurman, an executive at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, who spoke on the need for connecting with employees as a key to excellent leadership. Thurman also spoke of the importance of diversity and inclusion, noting that diversity is a mix. “Bringing in people from different places is just the beginning,” he explains. It doesn’t get you anything if their value isn’t realized. Inclusion is all about culture when you get the richness of that diversity.”

Equally inspiring were the brief talks by alumni who returned to showcase what they have learned. Jackie Price Osafo, executive director of the Society of American Archivists, passionately conveyed “Leadership Lessons From My Father.” Shima Auzins, a 2021 grad from Japan who is a Vice President of a boutique intelligence firm, spoke on “What Makes You, You?” In an intimate talk about her mother Louise, who died of Alzheimer’s disease, 2019 iMBA alum Karen Finocchio Lubeck encouraged her classmates to “Leave A Little Spark,” just as her mother had left for her. Harshad Desai, a 2020 graduate who is an associate director at Cognizant Technology, relayed that he had learned in leading others in a talk entitled “Don’t Empower, Emancipate.”

‘WHAT CAN YOU LOSE WITH A $22,000 MBA PROGRAM?’

Iqbal Mirza, a senior manager for Juniper Networks, wishes Gies would have three iConverge events a year

It was an event that resonated with Iqbal Mirza, 43, a senior manager based in Dallas for Juniper Networks, agrees. Born in Pakistan and a holder of two college degrees, this is the first time he actually enrolled in a degree program of his own choosing. “In Pakistan,” he says, “the neighbors don’t ask if it is a boy or a girl. They ask if it will be a doctor or engineer. This is the first time I’m getting a degree for myself.”

He was admitted to the part-time evening program at the University of Texas in Dallas but decided to pass on the $56,000 program in favor of the iMBA. Before making his choice, he spoke to a few others already studying in the program. “They asked me, ‘What can you lose with a $22,000 program?’ I said, ‘My time.’ But now I would bet my life on it. My colleagues couldn’t stop talking about this program because Gies is one of the true pioneers in online education.”

Mirza flew from Dallas to Chicago to attend iConverge. “I have been Zoom called my everyone for about a year now,” he says, now a third way through the program. “I am feeling a lot of energy here. You can’t build a complete human connection over a Zoom call. They should do iConverge three times a year, though my wife probably wouldn’t agree.”

Within hours of leaving the campus, he posted his assessment to classmate on LinkedIn. “It was an absolutely amazing experience meeting everybody in person. Now the bond is stronger and real. We have rediscovered the human touch that you can’t experience through zoom calls.”

Evans, the former secret service agent, was feeling the same. “It’s hard to articulate how much I miss people I just met in person for the first time,” she wrote a classmate on LinkedIn, “but I miss you already!”

DON’T MISS: GIES BUSINESS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS or GIES ACHIEVES NEW RECORD FOR APPLICANTS TO ITS ONLINE MBA

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