Don’t pay for your MBA

An MBA can be like a turbo-boost for your career. But an MBA from a traditional school can cost in excess of $100,000. Could getting a world-class MBA for no or low cost be a real-world option instead?
An MBA can be like a turbo-boost for your career. But an MBA from a traditional school can cost in excess of $100,000. Could getting a world-class MBA for no or low cost be a real-world option instead?

Costs for traditional colleges and graduate schools are getting out of control. To make things worse, the high cost of such an investment doesn’t guarantee a good return. Consider these numbers from a recent Forbes article: “The numbers say it all: Since 1985, the price of college has increased a staggering 538 percent. Average student loan debt is approaching $30,000 per grad. And more than 50 percent of recent grads are either jobless or underemployed.”

Writer Matthew Walther perhaps laid it out the best in a recent article in The Week magazine: “Absolutely nothing about the way we pay for higher education in this country makes sense. University education in this country for everyone who is not certifiably brilliant, amazingly good at one or more sports, or from a wealthy background is a form of indentured servitude.

“Imagine you're a 17-year-old kid who has grown up with all the propaganda of middle-school guidance counselors telling you that you must go to college. You go for a campus visit and think it's really cool that in the dining hall closest to your dorm you can eat pizza or nachos whenever you want. Maybe you really like the idea of floating away your Saturdays in a "leisure pool" shaped like the initials of a football team you like watching on TV. You're definitely going to fill out that online promissory note in the financial aid office signing you up for five figures of debt.”

While the skyrocketing cost of higher education is a major problem for millions of Americans, what if I told you that there’s another way to get the brass ring? Laurie Pickard is the author of “Don’t Pay for your MBA: The Faster, Cheaper, Better Way to Get the Business Education You Need” and also founded the No-Pay MBA blog. In addition to advising self-directed learners worldwide, she leveraged her self-made MBA into a successful career as a business and entrepreneurship development consultant, most recently as a private-sector development adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Rwanda. I recently had the pleasure to interview Pickard to get the skinny on low and no-cost MBAs that can stack up against any traditional program out there.

Mark Fadden (MF): “Why are you such a firm believer in the power and payoff of massive open online courses (MOOCs) for career-climbers, career-changers and entrepreneurs? “

Laurie Pickard (LP): “Because the course materials come from prestigious universities and are of extremely high quality. Online courses offered as MOOCs include lectures, readings and assignments, just like a regular college course. The low cost and high quality of these courses make them a great value for people who are looking to grow their skills, change careers, or start a business. Because you don’t have to commit to an entire degree program, you can easily study just what you need, course by course.”

MF: “You chronicled your self-directed MOOC-based MBA journey in your blog, No-Pay MBA. Besides providing the foundation for your book, how did the experience open up doors for you?”

LP: “I was working in the foreign aid industry when I started the No-Pay MBA project. My coursework helped me to see opportunities for the government agency I worked for to connect with private businesses. Ultimately, this focus on public-private partnerships for poverty reduction led to a promotion and a raise. The project also opened up doors in education technology. I am now working for an ed-tech startup. And of course, I was able to write a book to help others get a similar low-cost, career-launching business education.”

MF: “What was the total cost of your non-traditional MBA? How does that compare with the average total cost of a traditional, two-year MBA program?”

LP: “I estimate that I spent about $800 on courses and books, $1,500 on maintaining a website, and $15,000 to start a small business, which was the capstone project to my self-made MBA program. I made back most of what I invested in the business, so when you compare what I spent with the $100,000 or more that most MBA students spend just on tuition, I think I got an outstanding value.”

MF: “In your book, you urge anyone serious about designing their own online business education to begin by administering their own admissions process. Would you explain what you mean?”

LP: “It starts with setting goals. Why are you interested in a business education? What do you hope to do career-wise that you aren’t currently doing? Then look at the time and money you have to spend on the education. How much time and money are you able to invest to reach your goals? Being clear about your investment of time and money and what you hope to achieve with your investment helps keep you motivated to keep going until you reach that payoff.”

MF: “How much time should students plan to invest in a nontraditional MBA?”

LP: “I suggest budgeting around five hours per week per course. If you spend 10 to 15 hours per week (which is what I did), you can complete the equivalent of an MBA in about two years. The nice thing about studying this way is that you can tailor your education to fit the time that you have available. Not everyone needs to replicate the entire MBA. Many people can find tremendous value in taking just a few courses.”

MF: “Most business school grads build valuable networks during their studies. Can self-directed MBA students get similar benefits through online classes?”

LP: “Yes, they can, but they have to work at it. I suggest dedicating a few hours per week to making strategic connections and expanding your network. The best way I know of to grow your network is through informational interviewing. This is a low-stakes way to get to know the jobs and career paths in your industry of choice. Each successful interview can lead to more introductions. You just have to stay diligent about it.”

MF: “Would you share some pointers to help MOOC-based MBA students establish professional credibility and market their non-traditional business education?”

LP: “I suggest paying for a few course certificates, preferably for advanced coursework from well-known institutions. When preparing your resume, highlight that coursework along with other impressive achievements from your background. Think broadly about your accomplishments in both paid and unpaid positions. Also keep in mind that experience is much more important than any kind of credential, even a degree.”

MF: “In your book, you proclaim that we’re on the brink of an “Education Revolution.” Why are you convinced? What does this mean for individual business students and for traditional business schools?”

LP: “We are living through a time of tremendous changes in technology, which are in turn affecting how we live and work. As a result, our careers can’t and shouldn’t look like they used to, and education will have to change to match these new workplace demands. People need to acquire new skills throughout their careers and can no longer rely on a degree, or even two degrees, to carry them throughout a career. I believe these changes will only accelerate in the years to come. Blogger, App Developer, Social Media Manager, and Big Data Analyst are just a few of the careers that didn’t exist when I went to college, and I’m not that old.”

For more information and to order a copy of “Don’t pay for your MBA: The Faster, Cheaper, Better Way to Get the Business Education You Need” visit