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At UC Davis, Trailblazing Is Part of Its DNA—from an Online MBA “First” to an Access-Expanding Pilot

Written by Bannon Puckett on Sep 16, 2021

Related content: Higher Education, Graduate Programs

Three UC Davis Online MBA students working together on a tablet

“It feels great to be a trailblazer.”

H. Rao Unnava, dean of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management (GSM), reflects on all the ways his nationally ranked business school¹ has been first in recent years. “We were the first online degree program at UC Davis and the first online MBA program in the UC system,” he says, referring to MBA@UCDavis, which is powered by 2U. “We were also one of the first of several schools to receive a STEM designation for our MBA program. We always like to be the first, especially when it has an effect on the social good. UC Davis is known for that.”

Celebrating 40 years of success in 2021, the UC Davis Graduate School of Management can now also consider itself a trailblazer in access and affordability, after announcing a pilot to offer future MBA@UCDavis students the option to apply for interest-free deferred tuition payments.

Offered in partnership with EdAid, the deferred tuition plan has zero interest charges, accruals, or hidden fees. Eligible students can pay 50% of the cost of the program while they are enrolled and then defer the remaining 50% until they graduate. Only when students reach a minimum income threshold will they begin to repay the deferred tuition, with payments fixed at 10% of their yearly gross income. If a student’s income falls below the income threshold, repayments will be paused at no penalty. So no student in good standing will pay more than the amount they defer. And if a student has not paid their tuition in full by the end of the 10-year payment term, they will not owe any further payments. The pilot program—one of the first of its kind in the country—will be available to students who enroll in either the January or April 2022 cohort.

For the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, pioneering new approaches to teaching, learning, and reaching diverse populations of students has always been an instinctive part of its mission. Read on to find out how our future-forward partnership began, the combined impact we've had on learners, and why Dean Unnava says, “When you’re doing the right thing, there’s this moral energy that everyone feels good about.”

Continuing to Innovate for Top Graduate Outcomes

The partnership between UC Davis and 2U first began in 2017, when the Graduate School of Management announced its commitment to develop an online MBA with 2U. The first cohort launched in 2019 featuring eight concentration options, ranging from business analytics to marketing strategy to technology management.

Of all the accolades and recognition the Graduate School of Management has enjoyed in recent years, two are notable stand-outs: The Economist ranked the school’s faculty—who teach courses both on campus and online—as second-best globally² for being visionary leaders in their fields, thus propelling cutting-edge research, teaching, and learning even further into the future. And just last year, the MBA program received an official STEM designation, reflecting its progressive synergies with the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The curriculum now further emphasizes quantitative analysis and data-driven decision making in order to prepare graduates for leadership roles in STEM fields.

UC Davis Graduate School of Management Dean H. Rao Unnava (pictured back row left) joined students for the first UC Davis Online MBA residential experience

MBA@UCDavis student Bee Yang, who began in the October 2019 cohort, speaks highly of the program’s flexibility and of the curriculum’s immediate, real-world relevance. “I get to have it all,” she smiles. “I get to have my job, be a mom, and further my education. We’re not just learning abstract material. We’re learning skills that we can apply to our job right away, the next day.”

Eve-Marie Lanza, another MBA@UCDavis student from the spring 2020 cohort, praises the program’s engaging live discussions. “I have been struck by how much I learn every single class,” she says. “Being able to be excited by new topics, new ideas, and new theories, and get fired up about it, is really what I’ve been enjoying so much about the program.”

“Ever since we started with 2U, it’s been a good relationship because we keep talking about innovations in our programs,” Unnava says. “As we go along, there are several updates and new offerings we’ve been making to keep the programs top-quality for students. We also look to address all of the challenges and changes that are taking place across the country and the world, from the pandemic and climate change to social justice, healthcare inequities, and economic recovery.”

Removing the Stress for More Student Choice

While the UC Davis online programs have led to outstanding student outcomes, Unnava points to studies like this one that “show a large segment of deserving students are unable to pursue higher education due to financial constraints.” Students traditionally haven’t had a lot of options, he explains, and there has never been a one-size-fits-all solution.

“One approach is to take a loan from a bank, which carries the burden of compounding interest and puts pressure on the student throughout their program,” Unnava says. “Another way is for them to seek out need-based scholarships, but there’s a limit to what universities can give each student on average. So when 2U approached us with the idea of a deferred tuition plan, we were quite impressed with the consistency of that offering in line with helping to address these issues. 2U introduced us to EdAid, and everyone, including our Provost and Chancellor at UC Davis, worked through a pretty elaborate process to get this new pilot program off the ground.”

This new student option is yet another innovation—and also consistent with UC Davis’ tenants as a land-grant university to democratize education for as many people as we can.
— H. Rao Unnava, Dean, UC Davis Graduate School of Management

With the goal to reduce the financial barriers of pursuing an MBA by enabling students to avoid interest payments, the pilot ultimately aims to help lower the final cost of a high-quality business education. “Our pilot program is truly a remarkable offering,” he continues. “It addresses a group of people who are unable to get their higher education because they either have a cash flow issue or don’t want to experience the stress of interest accumulation over time. The pilot lets us expand access to a group of people who’ve been neglected until now. This new student option is yet another innovation—and also consistent with UC Davis’ tenants as a land-grant university to democratize education for as many people as we can.”

Doing the Right Thing for Access and Affordability

With more financing options comes greater student diversity, and Unnava is excited for all of the kinds of learners his school will serve, from the CEO change-makers of tomorrow to eager solutions-oriented entrepreneurs. “The more students we have who are learning from us and able to build their careers, that’s where the reward is,” he says. “It’s highly gratifying when a student comes back after many years and tells us they have been successful because of their graduate education at the GSM.”

Around UC Davis, Unnava says he’s already heard interest from other schools to offer a similar deferred tuition pilot to their students. “I think our model will encourage students to advance their careers because they won’t have the burden of heavy interest and multiple loans,” he adds. “It will free them to make decisions that would otherwise be subjected to those pressures, like going to work for a non-profit, for example.”

“Every time you’re able to do something that’s consistent with your values, that match between what you believe in and your behaviors contributes to increased satisfaction,” Unnava explains. “So there’s this sense with me and across the school of having done the right thing here—and gratefulness for the role we’re able to play in making the next good thing happen for more students.”


¹U.S. News & World Report, Best Business Schools 2022 Rankings (visited May 7, 2021)

²The Economist, Which MBA? 2021 Rankings (visited Jan. 21, 2021)

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