Get a Business Education, Without the Business School Debt

Business owner Laurie Pickard
by Laurie Pickard

I can trace when my life began to change course to one warm evening in 2013. I had just finished a three-year assignment as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Nicaragua. I was barely scraping by as a part-time consultant for the local branch of the World Bank. I'd worked for nearly four years for low (sometimes no) pay, so I was ready for a proper job in international development, and to finally make some decent money.

Sifting through endless online job postings only made me feel hopeless. Nothing was a good fit for my résumé: a BA in politics, an MA in geography, years of volunteer service, and a brief stint as a project manager. Practically every international development job demanded a degree in business, finance, or economics.

Maybe it would be smarter, I thought, if I just cut to the chase and started researching MBA programs. I was excited to join my new husband as he pursued his career in foreign aid. I could picture us as globetrotters; new assignments taking us to far-flung corners of the world. I knew my own career depended on getting a first-class business education, but seriously, how in the world could I afford that? No way would I burden my new marriage-and career-with a huge pile of student debt.

The average total cost of a two-year, traditional MBA program in the U.S. now tops $150,000. A highly ranked MBA program, such as the Wharton School of Business, could add up to a whopping $220,000 when you tally up tuition, living expenses, and opportunity costs (in the form of lost salary). Even part-time and online programs can cost around $75,000.

Well, that sure wasn't happening. Then one day, the answer quite literally showed up on my doorstep. My husband and I were chatting with our friend Julio, tossing around ideas about our future prospects. Julio excitedly shared his recent experience with MOOCs. "Mooks?" I asked. He laughed. "Spelled M-O-O-C. It stands for massive open online course. I'm taking one to brush up on finance. The professor teaches at NYU, and he's famous for his work on corporate valuation. It's truly world-class. And it doesn't cost a dime!"

Don't Pay for Your MBA book cover

Then he uttered the sentence that was to change my life. "I've taken a look at other courses from Wharton, MIT, and Stanford," he said, "and I could practically refresh my MBA with the courses that are out there."

I felt a big electric charge run through me. Imagine studying with the world's top professors for the price of an Internet connection! I could just see myself earning the equivalent of an Ivy League MBA while relaxing under a palm tree, or sunning myself on a beach in Southern France. Could I really do that?

The next morning I popped open my laptop and searched for "free online business courses." Wow! I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I could study management, marketing, finance, accounting, human resources, operations, innovation, and entrepreneurship with professors at the world's best business schools. Could I actually piece together enough of these courses to fashion my own tailor-made degree in business? Yes, I could. And I did! I chronicled the entire journey in a blog called "No-Pay MBA." 

But before you start thinking it's as easy as 1-2-3, you have to figure out if a self-directed, MOOC-based business education will work for you. First ask yourself these key questions: Can I set aside sufficient time to study? Have I determined a specific goal I wish to achieve through independent study? Will I remain motivated to work hard in my self-directed program?

If you can answer "Heck to the yeah!" to those questions, you're ready to start educating yourself to a level equivalent to an MBA, without the mountain of student debt. Indeed, the easy availability of information, the ever-changing business landscape, and the shifting importance of traditional degrees have combined to erode the value of an actual MBA degree. And unlike medicine or law, for example, there is no degree required to practice business or own a business.  

Of course, seeing "MBA" still impresses people. But that doesn't mean you are worth less than three capital letters. More and more, people value self-motivated, hard-working, and eager learners. You just need to package your business education in a way that will make a client, a boss, or a would-be investor take notice.   

When I began studying business on my own, I was working as a rural enterprise and entrepreneurship specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Rwanda. I secretly worried that I didn't know enough about either enterprise or entrepreneurship to deserve my title. I felt like an imposter.

But the more courses I took and the more skills I gained, the more confident I felt, and the more value I contributed to my team. No longer did I feel like an imposter. I had turned myself into the real thing, a fully prepared professional who deserved her place in the business world.

This lack of confidence (known as Imposter Syndrome) is common among women, and it can greatly hinder their professional and entrepreneurial growth. Fortunately, there is a surefire cure: education, knowledge, and skills. Even more fortunately, that cure is now more readily available and affordable than ever.

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About the Author: Laurie Pickard is the author of the new book Don't Pay For Your MBA: The Faster, Cheaper, Better Way to Get the Business Education You Need, and founded the No-Pay MBAwebsite. She is a business and entrepreneurship development consultant, most recently as a private-sector development adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Rwanda.

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