So you’ve been considering getting an MBA. It seems like a foolproof plan, right? After all, the MBA is the degree that helps open the doors to the world of business. Never mind the two years out of the workforce or that pesky student loan you’ll be paying off for the next 15 years (if you’re lucky). The career boost makes it all worth it in the end—doesn’t it?
Well, maybe. While an investment in business school may be the right choice for certain people, it doesn’t make sense for everyone. Let’s say you don’t yet have much work experience, you’re already working in a field you plan to stay in, or you need to work full-time to support yourself and/or others. Taking time out of the labor force, while piling a debt burden onto your burgeoning career may not be your best move.
Fortunately, a pricey degree isn’t the only way to get a business education. If you’re not looking to make a radical career change, aren’t completely sure what you’d like to do next, or simply can’t justify dropping $100,000 (or more) on tuition, you can still beef up your business savvy without a formal MBA program That’s what I did.
A few years ago, I was a former Peace Corps volunteer with a fledgling career in international development. I had landed in the right industry, but the most exciting jobs in my field called for advanced training in economics, finance, or business—training I didn’t have. Rather than risk losing the career foothold I had only recently established, I decided to educate myself on the cheap; taking advantage of the fact that many universities had begun to release digital versions of their classes, available to anyone with an internet connection.
I compared the curricula of top MBA programs with the course offerings on a variety of online learning platforms. Then, I mapped out a course progression that was a near one-for-one match with traditional business grad programs. (I even set up a website to document my MBA journey, which I dubbed the No-Pay MBA.)
Online classes like these—sometimes called massive open online courses (MOOCs)— have gained quite a bit of traction and many are still available free of charge, though many students choose to pay for certificates to prove they completed the coursework.
Meanwhile, before I even completed all of the classes on my agenda, I scored a promotion at work and started running a side business helping people to reap the full value of a debt-free business education.
So instead of spending money you may not have, why not spend a few months learning the basics and deciding if B-school really makes sense for you? Just taking a few courses can remind you what it's like to be a student. And by staying in the workforce while you do this test run, you’ll be able to put your skills into practice right away and may even be able to take on increased responsibility at work. If at the end of this you discover you still need that degree, go for it!
Here are the six subjects I personally recommend to start your business education and classes that will teach you each one. Note that for each option, it's free to watch the course lectures and learn the skills. However, most platforms do have fees for verified certificates, and on some sites, like Coursera, there is a charge to take quizzes and submit assignments as well.
People in any field or industry can benefit from learning project management, as you might be called upon to spearhead a new initiative or lead an ad-hoc team. When that happens, use your project management skills to deliver results and impress your supervisors.
Project management courses to try:
Study marketing to understand customer decision-making, product positioning, and market segmentation. You’ll learn how companies communicate strategically and position their brands in a market niche.
Marketing courses to try:
If you only study one subject from the business curriculum, I suggest finance. In large part, MBAs get both their worldview and their chops from understanding and deploying financial logic. These classes will help you read a balance sheet, interpret a cash flow statement, and use terms like ROI (return on investment), NPV (net present value), and IRR (internal rate of return) with confidence.
Finance courses to try:
Whether you’re buying a car, determining a starting salary, or representing your organization in high-level discussions, you’ll need negotiation skills. Get good at it by learning the strategies that professional negotiators use.
Negotiation courses to try:
Whether or not you harbor ambitions of starting your own business, you’ll be well-served by learning an approach to generating and testing entrepreneurial ideas. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank teaches the authoritative course on this topic, which walks you through the initial steps of developing a business idea, but that’s far from the only option.
Free entrepreneurship classes to try:
Strategy brings together many disciplines, including finance, entrepreneurship, and marketing. Learn how to analyze a company’s competitive position within a market: What are the forces at play within your industry? Who are your competitors and what makes you different? Which opportunities should your company jump on right away?
Free strategy classes to try:
I’m not saying you shouldn’t get an MBA. For some people, they’re absolutely worth it. But if you’re on the fence, start with these free online classes and see if what you need is B-school or just a skills boost—one that won’t require nearly the same financial investment or time out of the workforce.