How my online MBA helped me land a 43% salary increase—and a spot in the C-suite

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 30, 2022, 12:22 PM
Eric Scott, a current online MBA student at the University of Illinois. Courtesy of Eric Scott.

Earning an MBA can involve a huge investment both in terms of time and money. Some full-time, in-person MBA programs can cost upwards of $100,000 each year. However, the median cost of earning an MBA from a school on Fortune’s ranking of the best online MBA programs is currently $795 per credit, with most schools requiring 36 credits to graduate. This means an online MBA can cost roughly $30,000.

Despite the upfront cost, the payoff of earning an MBA can be huge. Take, for example, Eric Scott, a current online MBA student at the University of Illinois who matriculated in 2021 and will graduate in May 2023. Since starting his online MBA program, he’s already landed a huge promotion to the C-suite, as chief marketing officer of MDM Commercial, a reseller and distributor of LG commercial-grade digital displays (mostly TVs). Plus, the promotion scored him a 43% salary increase. 

During his 17-year career in public relations and marketing, Scott worked for the University of Northern Colorado, the University of North Florida, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Florida Times-Union before a few years of working with nonprofits. There were a couple times during his career that he considered going back for an MBA, but seeing how online education had become more improved, more credible, and more prevalent led him to eventually pursue his degree in 2021. 

Fortune sat down with Scott to learn more about how his online MBA from Illinois, which is hosted on Coursera’s platform, helped him get closer to his ultimate career goal of being a president or CEO of a company. 

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Why get an MBA?

Fortune: How did you decide it was time to get your MBA?

Scott: And I had been kind of been going back and forth for about the past 15 years on whether I wanted to do my MBA or not. Having worked for universities in the past, I could have done it free of cost. But when I worked in those environments, I was working in sports, which has a very crazy schedule where you’re talking 60, 70 hours a week and constantly traveling, so not conducive to the type of time commitment that comes with a master’s program. 

Then I considered it again in 2013 getting at the University of North Florida. It would’ve been an in-person program because the online master’s experience you see today was just not what it was then. It just was not very robust or credible, to be honest with you. I had also become a new dad, and so just realized that that was still not a time commitment I could have made. 

Fast forward to October 2020, and one of my friends was telling me that he was working on his master’s in data analytics online at Georgia Tech. It really sparked something—I was thinking, ‘Well, if he can do it, then, so can I,’ particularly with some really well-known institutions. In my opinion, I think that the stigma of online education not being so credible has gone away, particularly with the onset of the pandemic. It just really sparked something in me, so I looked into it further, and did a lot of research.

Fortune: Why commit to an online MBA program versus, say, a part-time, in-person program?

Scott: It’s the flexibility. As a CMO, I have a lot of demands on that job and then having a family. It’s still a major time commitment, but it is nice to be able to do everything within my own home and still be around if I’m needed. But I’ll tell you, Illinois does such a fantastic job, and there’s a reason why they have such a fantastic reputation as an innovator in the online education space. When you’re attending the live sessions, you really do feel like you’re there. It’s so interactive. You get to participate in breakout groups and the professor will call on you randomly like you’re in class.

Fortune: Why Illinois?

Scott: When I started looking around at programs, my current employer at the time did not have a tuition reimbursement program. Number one on my mind was cost. I did not want to have an exorbitant amount of loan repayments for the next 30 years. I also really wanted it to be from a very reputable institution. I really wanted to challenge myself. Illinois really ticked the boxes.

I did not want to just get into this program and do the bare minimum and not be challenged. I wanted to test myself and prove to myself I could perform at the top level. I looked at the University of Illinois. I looked at Boston University as well, which is another institution with an excellent reputation, and also very similar in terms of online program innovation, and also cost manageable. I also looked at my undergrad alma mater, University of Northern Colorado. They have a very strong regional reputation, but I also wanted to choose an institution which had a strong national reputation because I think that just gives you more flexibility. 

Fortune: What were your main motivators for earning your MBA?

Scott: When I was considering this past time going for my MBA, I was a director of marketing and on the leadership team. But for me, I have a certain set of career goals. I wanted to make it to the C-suite by the time I was 40. I’m 38 now. My end goal is to be a CEO or president of a company or to be a successful business owner. I felt that the MBA would help me get there. Some people can get there without it. I take a look around at the current market as it is, and it just keeps getting more and more competitive. More and more people are getting their master’s.

I felt as though getting that degree will give me more flexibility in my career and a better ability to compete with other talented people in the workforce, as well as continue to pursue my goals. I also work better when I have a structured educational path. The MBA specifically is very well-rounded. I want to have a very well-rounded background, and so it would help me strengthen some areas which may have been a weakness for me. 

It’s also even helped me become a better leader. I’ve always felt I’ve been a good leader, but it’s just taking me to that next level. Along with furthering my career is a better financial situation—or a salary total compensation increase. Since I’ve been in the program (and I graduate in May) I’ve seen a promotion to the CMO level and a 43% compensation increase. It’s really been just a great move, a life changing experience and just so enjoyable all around.

How the MBA changed his career

Fortune: How did you leverage your online MBA to land a promotion?

Scott: A big part of that is constant communication with your boss and communicating the value of what you’re learning and the value it brings to the business. Even before I started the program, I told my boss I had made the decision to get my MBA. I just kept communicating how excited I was to start and just learn and better myself. 

One day he we sat down in his office and he says, ‘Do you want me to pay for it?’ It was a very pleasant surprise. Shortly thereafter we started a tuition reimbursement program for our company. So me pursuing that was really a catalyst for us.

Checking in, having touchpoints with my boss and communicating different parts of my learning journey and what I’m learning, and the value I’m bringing helped with earning a promotion. And then just demonstrating it each and every day. I also am bringing this to strategic meetings and coming prepared, having better knowledge of what we’re talking about and being able to guide our teams in better strategic decisions has helped as well. 

Fast forward to April 2022, this past year when I did receive my promotion, it was interview time, and I came prepared and I was upfront about where I’m at and this is where I think I should be for these reasons. He agreed to it and complimented me on my progress and could definitely see the value I was bringing from what I was learning from the MBA program. 

Fortune: What advice would you have for prospective online MBA students?

Scott: You have to pick the program that you feel is going to be right for you. Certainly seek advice from others, too. Reach out to current students from the program because everything you see online is not necessarily going to be the real story. When you’re going through the research process and the decision-making process, definitely talk to current students and get their perspective on the program—not just the positives, but the negatives, too. It’s important to weigh those.

Also I would say for an online MBA, you’re going to want to make sure you choose a school that has been at it for a while. You’re going to see, I think some hiccups along the way because nothing is ever perfect when it first starts out. If it’s important to you to be part of a seamless program, definitely go with a program that has developed online with innovation in mind. 

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in data science (in-person and online), nursing, computer science, cybersecurity, psychology, public health, and business analytics, as well as the doctorate in education programs MBA programs (part-time, executive, full-time, and online).