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Democratizing the MBA: Positioning Tuition-Free Business Education

The EvoLLLution | Democratizing the MBA: Positioning Tuition-Free Business Education
Lack of access to high-quality postsecondary education often creates a barrier to economic growth in the developing world, but the University of the People is hoping to overcome that obstacle with its tuition-free online offerings.

Graduate-level business education programming is often considered to be reserved for the elite, but the University of the People (UoPeople) is looking to democratize access to the MBA credential. The university, which offers tuition-free online programming, launched its MBA program in March 2016 with the aim of expanding access to business education. In this interview Russell Winer, dean of business for UoPeople and professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, shares his thoughts on what he hopes the MBA offering will accomplish and discusses its position in the competitive business education marketplace.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did UoPeople launch an MBA program?

Russell Winer (RW): You have to first take a look back at the mission of the University of the People, which is to provide tuition-free education to anybody in the world who has an internet connection. We try to reach people in less developed countries who, for a variety of reasons, don’t have access to a good college education. The idea was that if we can educate people like that then they could have a profound impact on their communities—perhaps by enrolling in this program, a graduate could start their own businesses and employ people.

Part of our agreement with our accrediting agency in the US was that, if we were going to call ourselves the University of the People, we would have to offer some graduate degrees. It made a lot of sense that the first graduate degree we would offer would be business-related to be consistent with our mission. We looked at a couple of different models for business-related graduate degrees and we thought that the degree with the most visibility globally was an MBA. We’re starting with a regular MBA program and then we intend to offer some specializations at some point down the road, like entrepreneurship.

Evo: What were the most significant challenges to launching the UoPeople’s MBA program?

RW: The most significant challenge is finding qualified people to develop the courses, which is a basic challenge that we have at the University of the People. Our approach is to have two sets of people involved with each course: one is the course developer who develops the curriculum and the other is the instructor who manages the implementation of the curriculum as the course is being offered. It’s always been a struggle to get highly-qualified people to develop courses at the undergraduate level. The most significant challenge really for the MBA program is making sure we have qualified course developers that can develop courses at a graduate level, not at an undergraduate level.

Evo: How are you working to ensure that the program’s prospective students have the necessary level of academic readiness to allow them to step into an online MBA program?

RW: College readiness is a challenge for the university as a whole as well. Right now, we only require a high school diploma and we don’t reject anybody. The issue becomes whether they are English capable and making sure the degrees or information that they’re submitting during the application process are legitimate.

Evo: Other than price, how do you plan to distinguish the program from other MBA programs?

RW: We’re using a standard MBA curriculum but one of the areas we’re trying to emphasize is entrepreneurship, so we’re going to offer some courses in entrepreneurship and some courses focused on business in less developed countries, which is where a lot of our students come from.

Price is a differentiator, as is the fact that we’re purely online, so we attract a very diverse student body from around the world. Other online programs tend to be expensive and don’t have a good reputation—there has been a lot of bad press about people who have to take out loans to get their degrees and then are unable to get jobs after completing the program.

Unfortunately we don’t offer a placement service but we also don’t charge tuition, though we do have exam fees. We try to keep the price down, which attracts people from developed countries as well as developing countries. I haven’t seen the latest statistics but I believe over half of our students are American.

Evo: Will UoPeople’s MBA compete with offerings from some of the bigger business schools across the US?

RW: Students that are attracted to MBAs offered by top-ranked business schools are looking to get the brand attached to the degree. We don’t have that brand, so I’m hoping that our students are really coming for the education. As such, I don’t think our MBA offering will be positioned to compete against the bigger business schools. If that was the case I wouldn’t be able to keep my position because I’m not allowed to be the dean of a business school that competes with my home institution. I think we might compete with some of the online MBA programs, but the top MBA programs are still pretty much offered in the brick-and-mortar format.

Evo: What are some of the challenges with creating that sort of level of high-touch engagement that today’s students are looking for but in this online, low-cost modality?

RW: You really can’t deliver a classroom experience for any online program. What we try to do is to create these study sessions where the students help each other and coach each other through the assignments. It’s very much a mutual, student-oriented educational process. This component of mutual assistance distinguishes our program from others but these people don’t know each other—though they may know each other’s names, they will likely never meet each other. It is hard to deliver a classroom experience with a purely online program, but through these mutual coaching sessions we try to get more interaction between students than we could otherwise.

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