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NerdWallet: Master business skills without paying for an MBA

By TREA BRANCH of NerdWallet
Published: May 31, 2023, 7:58am

Lindsay Mack earned her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University in 2005. Nearly 15 years later, when she considered the best way to grow her business acumen, an MBA was not it.

Mack, who is from Philadelphia, grew her career without an MBA. When ready to advance her skills in platform strategy, she opted for a faster, lower-cost cohort program instead.

For students like Mack, the cost of a top MBA — averaging $225,605 in the U.S., according to a 2022 report by BusinessBecause, an online publisher of graduate business content — is daunting, and the value is questionable.

“I didn’t see how making such a significant investment (in an MBA) would really leapfrog me to the next level,” says Mack, now Comcast ‘s executive director of product management.

Cost isn’t the only barrier to attaining a graduate business degree. BusinessBecause reports that the average acceptance rate for the most competitive U.S. business schools is 16%, based on its analysis of data from U.S. News & World Report and other sources.

If you want access to business school education without the price of tuition or hassle of admissions, you have other options.


Consider a graduate business certification. A certification — offered by accredited colleges and universities — differs from an MBA degree primarily in how long it takes to complete the program.

Business certifications typically require about 12 to 15 class credits, while a master’s degree requires at least 30 credits, says Karen Rinehart, assistant dean of graduate programs at Marquette University Graduate School of Management in Milwaukee.

Because you’re taking fewer credits compared to an MBA, you can expect to pay much less. For example — based on the 2022-23 academic year — tuition for a graduate certificate in strategic management from Harvard Extension School, a Harvard Division of Continuing Education, is $15,500. A Harvard MBA costs $73,440 in tuition, not including fees.

Certificate programs are often more specialized than graduate business degrees. This can be great for those looking to develop a specific skill set — like business analytics — to advance in their career, says Olivia Jobson, associate director of graduate recruitment at Oregon State University College of Business.


Consider a self-guided online course. Companies like MasterClass, Skillshare, Udemy and Coursera let you learn business skills at your own pace.

“Our central tenet is to meet learners where they are,” says Marni Baker Stein , Park City, Utah-based chief content officer at Coursera. The company offers individual courses, professional and credentialed certifications, and full degrees through university partnerships.

Many online companies allow you to access some courses for free, but the full libraries require a monthly subscription. MasterClass, for example, offers unlimited access to existing and new content for $180 annually.

Unless partnering with an accredited institution, these programs typically do not offer credits for completion. If you need credits to transfer to a university, consider enrolling in an accredited program.


Consider a business training cohort. Though it’s hard to replicate the two-year, in-person MBA experience, some companies creatively found ways to incorporate its key components into online learning.

Section, a New York City-based online business education company, for example, offers one- to two-week online sprints structured much like sections within an MBA program. Members participate in live classes online, group discussions and even team projects for $ 996 per year.

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Similarly, the Invited MBA, by Texas-based corporate leadership development company Abilitie, offers a 12-week program that includes live virtual sessions, team business competitions, study groups and even online happy hours. Tuition is $1,850.

Companies like Section and Abilitie are not accredited universities. Graduating from these programs will not result in an MBA degree, but some graduates of the programs say it delivered exactly what they needed — practical business skills, a strong network and greater employability at a fraction of the cost of an MBA.

“I have folks who are at the exact same level as I am, who did full-time MBAs and have school debt, and I am now peers with them,” says Nicholas Schroeder, a Seattle-based graduate of Abilitie’s Invited MBA.

Upon completing the Invited MBA in May 2021, Schroeder, a former U.S. Army officer, transitioned into a career in consulting — the most coveted industry for prospective graduate management students, according to a 2022 survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council, an association of graduate business schools.


NerdWallet: How Much Does an MBA Cost?

The Graduate Management Admission Council Prospective Students Survey fields continuously every month of the calendar year and is reported on annually. The 2022 survey sample is based on 2,710 survey respondents — across 131 countries — who are considering applying to a graduate management program. Results were reported in April 2023.

Trea Branch is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: tbranch@nerdwallet.com.