Getting an MBA can be a powerful level-up for your career.
However, it can also very expensive.
For most of us, six figures of debt and two years dropped out of the full-time workforce are hard to justify.
I’ve made no secret of my skepticism about traditional MBAs. Speaking with a colleague at work who was earning his MBA from a Los Angeles-based educational institution, it became abundantly clear the primary benefit was the networking (indeed, that colleague scored us a software development client, MyWalletJoy).
The course material, from my coworker’s recollection, left much to be desired - practically a rehash of business undergraduate classes with Porter’s Five Forces, SWOT & PESTEL Analyses and the Business Model Canvas.
If you’re a lifelong learner like me and don’t want to incur loads of debt, here are my top recommendations for the best alternative educational programs to an MBA. If you dropped out of university to pursue a startup, you can also check out my post on how to get an MBA without a bachelors degree for information on non-traditional routes to business education.
Best Direct MBA Competitor: ThePowerMBA
See my full ThePowerMBA review here. I was in the 2020–2021 US/Los Angeles cohort.
Billing itself as democratizing access to an MBA, ThePowerMBA originated in Spain before launching its first cohort of English-speaking classes in the USA in 2020. At a price point of under $1000, it’s one of the most affordable options out there. ThePowerMBA uses a format of micro-lessons in 15mins a day over a period of up to 15months (though many students finish sooner given its self-directed nature). Needless to say, this disruptive form of education is unaccredited as no application is required, the instructors want the material to be flexible and current, and the classes are taught by senior executives at Waze, Shazam, Whole Foods, Netflix, among countless others.
Being a current student in their first USA cohort, the benefit is easily the global networking which is regular (albeit virtual given Covid-19) and the daily strategic exercise of applying theory to real world business problems. Needless to say, the material itself is a bit basic, with a lot of repetition from my undergraduate business degree, but packaged in a way that allows you to flex your strategic muscles, which ultimately is the key to rising in the ranks of leadership as you move from execution-based tasks to strategic-level thinking. Nevertheless, at the price point, it’s well worth the investment and that’s coming from someone who knows the material - if you’re a first time entrepreneur or have never done a business degree before, it’s even more valuable.
Best Tech MBA Alternative: Jolt
Another area I have a strong affinity for: tech. Having been in the B2B Software space for a number of years now, it’s no surprise that I have a strong affinity for the tech industry. Personally benefiting with a drastic increase in salary courtesy of a pivot into the space, it’s no wonder I’m a big fan of Jolt, an educational program that aims to help those on the outside break into tech.
Similar to ThePowerMBA, Jolt condenses those learnings into a 4-week immersive course, covering the basics of business including marketing, sales, product, and business models. Jolt’s tech-specific focus also includes career advice for breaking into tech companies and how to identify the best role for your skill-set. At just under $2500, it’s a little more expensive than ThePowerMBA but is to be expected given the more tailored approach to the highly lucrative tech industry, with lecturers from the cream of the crop including Amazon, Facebook, TikTok, & Google.
Best In-Person MBA Alternative: General Assembly
Pandemic times aside, there is a place for in-person learning. If nothing else, in-person learning can often be the best form of accountability since you have to travel to a physical place and there are consequences (albeit social) of not doing the work assigned to you. In this respect, General Assembly’s bootcamps are tried and true. A strong tech focus, with UX/UI Design, Digital Marketing, and Coding being 3 of the most popular, General Assembly’s model of 10-16 week bootcamps is ideal for gaining a new discipline for the career-switcher or job-hopper.
When it comes to pricing, their model is extremely appealing to me. The old model of paying for education with no certainty of future employment or promotion creates an awkward misalignment of incentives between instructors and students. General Assembly combats that with their Catalyst Program, where you only start paying off your tuition in affordable increments once you land a job paying at least a $40,000 salary. Several of my former UX Designer coworkers went through this program, detailing not only a strong curriculum but extensive resources in career development and job placement (very much in General Assembly’s interest since they don’t get paid, until you get paid, but an education model that I hope to see a lot more of in the future).
Best Specialized Educational Certificates: Emeritus
There’s value to a brand name. After all, prestigious Universities wouldn’t get away with charging $100,000+ for their MBA programs if people didn’t attribute value to them. But like I’ve said before, the cost is prohibitive so if you want that elite collegiate brand name, without the expense, Emeritus offers a great alternative. I first came across them as an IT Staff Augmentation client of my current company and their business model intrigued me instantly.
Initially targeting corporate employees who wanted management education but didn’t have the time for in-person, Emeritus partners with Universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Columbia Business School, and University of California, Berkeley, to produce online certificate courses based on material derived from in-person classes. Needless to say, Covid-19 has benefited Emeritus immensely as their specialized online certificate courses can start for as little as a few thousand dollars. As much as I disagree with the prices for the full MBA, there’s no denying the value to a world-class American education (I scored my first job in the USA in part due to a UCLA study abroad exchange that gave the interviewer confidence in my education level) so I have to give a big thumbs up to this hybrid model pioneered by Emeritus.
Best Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): edX
In the same vein, my recommendation for Top Massive Open Online Course fits with the previous statement of the power of a brand name: edX. Created by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, edX was an early player in the MOOC space. Focusing heavily on STEM, edX is easily the best option when it comes to cost - many courses are either low-cost (under $1000) or free. With over 30 million students taking 3000 courses produced by 150 schools, it’s the gold standard when it comes to sheer volume of content.
It’s worth mentioning, as with many MOOC, the content is only as good as your own discipline. Unlike other programs which can be more structured and have better methods for enforcing accountability, MOOC due to their low-cost nature often have students that procrastinate or fail to complete their courses. This is not an indictment on edX per se, but something to be aware of in your own psychology. When you spend a sizable chunk of money on a particular course, you’re more likely to complete it for fear of the sunken cost fallacy and thus ‘wasting your money’.
Here are a few of my other favorite MOOC-style courses:
- Valuations 101 from Aswath Damodaran (NYU)
- Strategic Management from Robert Austin (Copenhagen Business School)
Best Self-Directed Educational Alternative: LinkedIn Learning + Software Skills Assessments
Continuing with the theme of self-directed learning, sometimes the reason you even thought of getting an MBA in the first-place was some vague desire for additional education. If you evaluate it more, perhaps you might uncover that you don’t need a full degree but are perhaps lacking a few individual skills. This is where some of the more creative alternatives come to play. My first choice is LinkedIn Learning. Formerly Lynda, until 2015 when it was bought by LinkedIn, LinkedIn Learning can be accessed with a Premium Subscription (Covid-19 update: until March 2021, Microsoft made 14 courses totalling 250 hours of content free to access, without the need for a subscription).
Featuring content in the broad categories of business, creative, and technology, LinkedIn Learning has plenty of options to enhance particular skill-sets to make you more employable or promotable in the future. While still on this platform, LinkedIn’s newly rolled out ‘Skills Quiz’ under the ‘Skills & Endorsements’ section of your profile gives you a handy way to have certain skills be verified by an assessment and attached to your profile (I tried the SEO one - they aren’t for the faint of heart - you have to know your stuff).
Beyond LinkedIn, depending on your role, other software skill-based certifications and corresponding assessments are useful to enhance your knowledge. As a marketer, my personal faves are Hubspot and Google so take stock of gaps in your knowledge and see if a relatively short course (HubSpot’s Inbound Certification for example only took a day) can give you the edge needed when going for a new company, role, or promotion. The costs vary depending on whether you need a license for the software or not, but it’s a great way to plug the gaps on your resume as well as demonstrate your expertise - remember many companies themselves post on job descriptions “college education or equivalent” - in my book, many of these certifications are more than an equivalent, and a far lower price.