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MBA Programs

The ‘Free MBA’—Building Your Own Business Degree

Research MBA programs, specifically their course catalogs and
requirements. Once you have this information, pick up the required textbooks.

Photograph by Kevin Russ/Getty Imgaes

Research MBA programs, specifically their course catalogs and requirements. Once you have this information, pick up the required textbooks.

Can you get an MBA education, or something very much like one, without piling on debt? Dale Stephens, author of Hacking Your Education (Perigee Trade, March 2013), thinks you can. The founder of, a site designed to help people create their own education without setting foot inside a classroom, Stephens stopped attending school at 12. Among the “unschooled,” a self-directed form of home schooling, he spent his formative years choosing his own educational experiences, which included working in a library and living with a native family for six months in a small farm town in France.

When Stephens briefly attended Hendrix College in Arkansas, he got his wake-up call: “The students there weren’t there because they wanted to be there,” he says. “They just didn’t know what to do with their lives.” Stephens left and continued to educate himself. Now, he shows others the way. What follows is Stephens’s four-step plan for earning the equivalent of an MBA for free and on your own, as told to Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Francesca Di Meglio. While you can pick up MBA-level skills and knowledge this way, a real MBA—not the ersatz variety—is still required for many jobs, particularly in the highly sought-after fields of consulting and investment banking.Dale Stephens

Step One: Build a Learning Plan

Write out the goals you want to accomplish. Determine how each fits into the larger picture. For instance, if you are seeking the equivalent of an MBA because you want a job in investment banking, then figure out how each goal is relevant. One of your objectives might be to move to New York City, which is fitting because lots of investment banking jobs are concentrated there.

Step Two: Do Your Homework

You can’t escape homework that easily. Your next step should be to research MBA programs, specifically their course catalogs and requirements. Use these findings as a guideline for the subjects you should be studying. Look specifically at the majors that interest you, so you can zone in on particular topics. Once you have this information, you can pick up the required textbooks (or similar books) to get started.

Step Three: Study MOOCs

Now that you’ve looked at course catalogs, you can peruse the available massive open online courses (MOOCs)—which are free and often taught by popular professors at top universities—that are offered through consortia such as EdX and Coursera. Since you do not earn college credit for taking these classes and are directed by your own self-discipline, your reward will be whatever you learn and your own satisfaction. Coursera’s business category and Udemy’s have a lot of great content around building businesses. (For those who want a credential to show prospective employers, EdX—which has courses from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others—now offers proctored testing at 450 Pearson VUE locations in 110 countries.)

Step Four: Locate Your Teachers

Reach out to people in your industry of choice. Offer to buy them coffee for 30 minutes of their time. Share your goals and aspirations. Ask them if they have any advice. Go to networking events and make friends. Offer to help people. Hand out business cards. You might consider finding a “hackerspace,” which is a community-operated physical space, where people with similar interests gather to work on projects and share ideas. To Stephens’s mind, going to Harvard or Stanford buys you a network, but you can make your own.

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum, visit us on Facebook, and follow @BWbschools on Twitter.

Di Meglio is a reporter for in Fort Lee, N.J.

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