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How to get an MBA education for less than $1,000

Laurie PickardLaurie Pickard
Laurie PickardPhotograph by Crystaline Randazzo

(Poets&Quants) — Laurie Pickard’s gamble to earn an MBA entirely out of MOOCs is paying off—and not just because she saved six figures by forgoing a traditional degree.

As the blogger behind The No-Pay MBA, which chronicles her journey through the B-school curriculum, Pickard has become a household name in the MOOC (massive open online course) world. Poets&Quants first profiled Pickard in January 2014. Since then, the Kigali, Rwanda-based development worker for USAID has appeared in TIME , Entrepreneur, The Wall Street Journal, and Management Today, to name a few. She’s also written a column for The Financial Times. Her popularity has no doubt surprised MOOC critics and MBA purists, but Pickard herself may be the most astonished one. She is, after all, getting a business education that will cost her, all told, less than $1,000.

“It’s really gone beyond my wildest dreams. When I started this project, my aspirations were really modest. I was just thinking maybe I’ll get some press coverage so people will take this project seriously, and I can convince an employer that I have a business education. That happened so quickly, within the first six months,” she says.

Pickard started her journey in August 2013 and planned to complete 16 courses over two to three years. Now, a little more than halfway in, she’s completed 20 courses, exceeded the MBA curriculum, and can “graduate” at any time. However, she has no intention of stopping now.

“I have to keep my finger on the pulse and keep my skills fresh,” she says. She also has no plans to leave her current job as a development and entrepreneurship specialist at USAID. “I just see this [MOOCs] as a totally new field, and I want to be in it,” she says.

Pickard’s site has morphed alongside her journey. What started as a fairly straightforward WordPress blog now includes an MBA cost calculator; study tips; profiles of other MOOC MBAs; and recommendations for books, podcasts, articles, and blogs.

Riding that momentum, Pickard, 33, has embarked on a new adventure; one that will allow the fruits of her MBA journey to come full circle. She plans to to start her own enterprise, which will support students pursuing No-Pay MBAs.

Pickard plans to offer a No-Pay MBA community and support package, including a handbook, a regularly updated course guide, a course checklist, support networks, a digital credential, and a web presence where No-Pay MBAs can present their work to potential employers. Pickard plans to launch the program in June 2015 with a tiered pricing structure. The first level will include one-time digital downloads of the handbook, courses lists, and other materials. The second tier would give members continuous access to all program documents, supplemental information, coaching opportunities, and networking activities for a monthly fee. While the price hasn’t been set, Pickard maintains that she will keep it affordable. She plans to give at least partial access for less than the price of a verified MOOC certificate, which starts at $25. “This education is an incredibly good value by its very nature, and I don’t want to detract from that,” she says.

So far, the reception to her venture has been positive, according to Pickard. “I posted a little blurb on my site that just said, ‘Join me in The No-Pay MBA cohort.’ It didn’t really give any information about what that was … and within one week, 50 people had signed up,” she says.

Based on her experiences, she’s positioned The No-Pay MBA to fill in gaps in the MOOC experience and, hopefully by extension, to ward off some of the criticism levied at online classes. The lack of networking opportunities remains one of the most oft-cited shortfalls of MOOCs. In a class of tens of thousands, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to establish meaningful connections with the professor and fellow students. Pickard has experienced this personally, both in MOOCs and in her communication with other No-Pay MBAs. She notes that it’s tricky to maintain contact with all the students who email her about her program and to connect them to another. She says she also missed the classmate interaction that brick-and-mortar experiences offer. “I didn’t have anyone to compare notes with as I was deciding what to do, or to commiserate or celebrate with,” Pickard observes. She hopes the new No-Pay MBA resources will bridge those gaps by creating a forum and networking opportunities for site members.

Critics have also lampooned the MOOC MBA’s legitimacy. Pickard plans to address this by allowing students to post profiles showcasing their courses and best work on the site. Plus, she points out, packaging individual MOOCs as an MBA lends validity to the program. “There’s such a wide variety in what a MOOC does, how good it is, and how much you learn that a single certificate doesn’t tell you that much. But that’s the same in college courses,” she observes. “Nobody’s hiring you because you have a single college course; they’re hiring you because you have a package that’s valuable. I think we are going to see a repackaging of [online] courses.”

As the first person to publicly pursue the equivalent of an online MBA at little to no cost, Pickard says she gained a key advantage. “I’ve gone through this experience myself, so I know what I’ve missed as a student,” she says. “I’ve had to defend this again and again and again. People constantly bring up the problems and the holes they see in it, which is amazing in a way, because so many people are contributing their ideas, even if they’re only saying, ‘Well, you’re missing the network.’ So I’m thinking alright, how do I build the network?”

Still, she acknowledges that MOOCs aren’t perfect. There are plenty of things you can’t learn well online, including how to write and collaborate in a group, she sats. The one-on-one mentorship and the inspiration you get from a professor looking you in the eye are absent from online exchanges, she says. Pickard believes there’s a place for immersive learning experiences, such as an undergraduate, on-campus education. “There’s a hands-on element that can’t be replicated,” she says. For this reason, she’s focused on the professional and graduate market, where most students have already passed through a four-year college and are simply looking to supplement their skills or to make a career change.

But Pickard remains a hearty supporter of MOOCs and can attest to their benefits firsthand. What started as an experiment to move into a business role in international development morphed into an entrepreneurial venture. Pickard has completed five courses in entrepreneurship. In a traditional MBA program, that’s enough for a specialization. Her favorite courses included Steve Blank’s How to Build a Startup and Bill Aulet’s two MIT classes on the subject: Entrepreneurship 101: Who is your customer? and Entrepreneurship 102: What can you do for your customer?

While the jury is still out on whether she’ll enjoy the same success with The No-Pay MBA 2.0, she’ll have an opportunity to put her business skills to the test and to help other MOOC MBAs along the same path.

Either way, Pickard says she’s confident it won’t be a loss. “Succeed or fail, it’s part of a learning experience,” Pickard says.

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