Getting an elite MBA for free: It’s possible

December 23, 2013, 7:43 PM UTC

(Poets&Quants) — So you want an MBA, but you can’t afford to take two years off and invest upwards of a quarter of a million on tuition, books, living expenses, and lost wages?

Boy, do I have a proposition for you.

Now, it’s a little unconventional. And it’ll require a load of self-discipline. When it’s over, you’ll have an Ivy League education on your resume. And it won’t cost you a cent.

Sound too good to be true? Maybe it is. But I got your attention. And that’s one of the first things you learn in a foundational marketing class. And one of the world’s best business schools — Wharton — offers one of those for free through a MOOC.

MOOCs — an acronym for massive open online courses — are courses that can be accessed globally over the Internet. Thanks to their flexibility, students covet them.

It can be hard to describe what a MOOC is. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, you “know it when you see it.” Most MOOCs rely on set start and end dates, though a few are self-paced. They can be scaled to accommodate tens-of-thousands or just a select community. Occasionally, students can earn grades and college credit through MOOCs. Mostly, though, students receive a certificate of completion.

Tests can be proctored, but many MOOCs rely on the honor system. Textbooks are often optional (though some courses come with eBooks and downloadable software). Although professors deliver content through videos and PowerPoint in MOOCs, many engage with students on message boards in realtime (and even keep office hours for online students). Although MOOCs are grounded in distance education, many students form regionally based online communities.

Still, there is one characteristic that marks all MOOCs: They are available to anyone. And that’s why they’re booming. Sure, many MOOCs are free. But they’re also drawing millions of students, potential future customers for universities. That’s why platforms like Coursera, edX, and Udacity are partnering with schools to house content. For example, edX started as a consortium between Harvard and MIT — and has since added the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas to its membership (along with recently joining forces with Google (GOOG). Coursera was launched by Stanford professors and offers courses from the likes of Wharton, Columbia, and Yale.

That raises the question: With so much content available for free, do students even need to enroll in college anymore? MOOCs have democratized education globally (provided you have an Internet connection). Could students treat education like IKEA furniture?

Take business school education. For decades, entrepreneurs have counseled professionals to find a mentor and earn your MBA in the “school of hard knocks.” Sounds tempting, but knowledge is power. And it’s very costly to make those same fundamental mistakes in launching a business. So ask yourself these questions: What if these would-be MBA candidates could review course catalogs and identify foundational courses and electives that would fill their knowledge gaps? What if they could use this research to construct a learning plan that would build their knowledge, step-by-step, like a normal curriculum? And what if they could locate these courses on MOOC platforms like Coursera and edX?

It’s a tempting proposition. Imagine taking two MOOCs every eight weeks. You could theoretically finish your MBA in the same time it takes to complete a traditional program. And you can find much of the content covered in an MBA curriculum online at little to no cost.

Even David Wilson, the outgoing chief executive of the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT test, says it may well be possible. “The next MBA degree may not be a degree but a portfolio of certificates,” says Wilson. “The market will determine the worth of it.”

You can now take the foundational MBA curriculum from leading institutions for free. And that doesn’t count the dozens of elective courses available in areas like finance, marketing, and sustainability (far more electives, in fact, than would be available at an expensive executive MBA program). So is this worth considering?

Let’s take a look at the advantages (besides not paying tuition). Face it: No one cares where you earned a degree once you get your foot in the door and prove yourself. Completing your MBA requirements via MOOCs could show employers that you’re a disciplined, forward-thinking first adopter who has the self-control to be trusted to work on your own. With MOOC drop-out rates hovering around 90%, your approach would also demonstrate that you possess the grit to survive difficult circumstances.

And disregard that quaint notion that MOOCs are watered down curriculum. Leading institutions are using their teaching and research stars — not adjuncts or TAs — in their MOOCs. At Yale, Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller will lead a MOOC on financial markets in February. Similarly, Columbia’s Jeffrey Sachs, who moonlights as a special advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is holding a MOOC on sustainability beginning in January.

Why? For one, the best teachers are usually the most innovative and passionate faculty members. And MOOCs are the new frontier in education. They bring together thousands of students from around the world — more students than professors might reach in years of teaching. And MOOCs are still in their infancy with plenty of room for growth. Why wouldn’t a forward-thinking professor not want to be part of such a trend? What’s more, institutions realize that MOOCs are a way to show their best face to the world. They are a vehicle to build their brands and attract students. As a result, schools are taking extra pains to make sure these courses work. Bottom line: You will probably receive higher quality instruction on a MOOC than in a classroom environment. And that gives you another advantage over your brick-and-mortar peers.

Another benefit? You can enjoy all of these benefits without quitting your job, losing two years of work experience, and shelling out six figures for tuition. In fact, you won’t even need to study for your GMAT, pony up for an MBA admissions consultant, or face those daunting odds of getting into a top 10 business school.

To be sure, there are drawbacks. You won’t be able to flaunt your GPA. If you struggle with English, you won’t find many courses with foreign language subtitles on Coursera or edX. Despite message boards and interactive discussions, MOOCs still lack that face-to-face give-and-take that facilitates learning, particularly when case studies are involved. In a class of hundreds (or thousands), you’ll probably receive little personal attention or support. And just being on your own is difficult. It takes significant drive to complete assignments and tests. Without structure, it is easy to lose interest, particularly when free classes mean you have no skin in the game. What’s more, MOOCs put you at the mercy of technology. And, despite their earnest efforts, professors are still adapting to teaching out of a studio.

Most important, MOOCs can’t deliver the real draws of business school: The network and internship. Theoretically, MOOCs can give you the tools to run circles around your more pedigreed peers. But their internship opportunities and alumni network will give them a huge head start (even if you keep working). Fair or not, degrees matter. Without certification from a renowned educational brand, few employers will trust that you’ve mastered advanced coursework.

So should you take the plunge? That’s up to you. But consider this: In 2014, Harvard will join Wharton in making foundational MBA courses available online. With that, you can expect a MOOC arms race among the top business schools.

That said, here’s a word of warning: MOOCs won’t stay free forever. Sure, top institutions are building their brands by giving students a taste of their content. Eventually, they’ll need to tie their open source ideals to a revenue stream. Otherwise, MOOCs could potentially disrupt and cannibalize their existing businesses.

By giving content away for free, educators have opened the same Pandora’s Box that media outlets did nearly 20 years ago. Customers began to expect free content. And it resulted in a consolidation and decentralization of that market. A decade from now, academics may view the present as the heyday of MOOCs. To continue this model, educators will eventually need to charge for the content or reduce access or quality.

So if you’re going to enroll in a MOOC, do it now. Paywalls and restrictions are soon to come.

More from Poets&Quants:
* Guide to The Best MOOCs In the MBA Core Curriculum
* Guide to The Best MOOCs in Elective MBA Courses
* The Online MBA Comes of Age