Getting an MBA can help you build your network, improve your job prospects, and develop core skills, but at what cost? Today's MBA programs can cost upwards of $200,000 and remove you from the workforce for two years. Fortunately, it is not the only option available to you.

There's no dispute that an MBA can provide valuable benefits. However, I would argue that there are more cost-effective ways to develop the same skills and opportunities.

What are the benefits and skills that MBA programs offer applicants? Below, I've listed the core benefits prestigious programs, such as Harvard Business School (HBS), Wharton, and Stanford offer, and ways that you can experience the same benefit at a fraction of the cost.

Leadership skills:

  • Ask your boss to head up a team or project at work or speak to HR about management roles.
  • Volunteer with a non-profit and organize a fundraiser or other event.
  • Find a mentor and speak once a week about the challenges you are facing.

Entrepreneurship and innovation:

  • Work at an early stage startup.
  • Monetize a side hustle or launch your own company.

Global intelligence and reach:

  • Register for global conferences to build your network and educate yourself on international issues.
  • Attend industry and startup events like TED, brunchwork, PopTech, etc. (In full disclosure, I am an investor in brunchwork.)

Networking and alumni relationships:

  • Join a professional community and host events with influential members.
  • Dedicate five or more hours a week to building relationships and have your friends connect you with the most exceptional people they know.

Of course, replicating an MBA curriculum involves more than just going to events and meeting people. It provides personal development opportunities and an educational framework to learn new skills. To experience those benefits without an MBA, keep these tips in mind:

1. Build self-reflection into your weekly routine.

It is easy to get lost in the day-to-day grind. One of the perks of the traditional MBA path is that it removes you from the daily routine to focus on you and your development.

Regardless of whether you further your education or not, you should dedicate time each week for self-reflection. Ask:

  • What challenges have you faced this week, and how could you have handled them better?
  • What challenges did you handle well?
  • What skills do you need to take your career to the next level? (Leadership, critical thinking, language, networking, etc.)
  • Are you requesting constructive feedback? Have you trained yourself to take it well?

2. Sharpen your weak points and areas of interest.

Whether it's marketing, finance, technology, data, or something else, there are countless in-person workshops and online courses you can take. For instance, General Assembly offers a range of in-person courses and a few online.

For comparison, let's look at two General Assembly courses compared to similar courses at HBS:

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It's important to consider the teacher, their qualifications, and how effective people are when they complete the program, but this will give you a sense of the huge price discrepancy.

A more flexible option to in-person courses is online massive open online courses (MOOCs). In recent years, they have gained popularity and credibility, with many partnering with elite universities, professors, and thought leaders. Some top ones include:

  • Seth Godin's AltMBA: An intensive, four-week online workshop with a tuition cost of $3,000.
  • edX: Features free courses from universities like Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley.
  • Coursera: Also offers free courses from Stanford, Yale, John Hopkins and more.

3. Put your critical thinking skills to the test.

Critical thinking is essential in any career that you pursue, and a core focus of many MBA programs. Top business schools rely on the case method to develop this skill. Here's how it works:

  1. Students are presented with real-life business problems and must analyze the situation, identify the causes of the problem and potential methods to address it.
  2. Students then compare their recommendations and discuss the case with the rest of the class and the professor and collaborate on a set of recommendations.

Grab a group of coworkers or friends and hash out a case study. You will quickly see that your critical thinking skills are growing dramatically.

4. Learn by doing.

Taking classroom knowledge and applying it to real-life is the best way to reinforce your learning and develop leadership. Some options to apply your skills are:

  • Participate in events like Catchafire.
  • Shadow someone on another team at work.
  • Make your own opportunity through a side-hustle.

An MBA program offers many benefits, from building your business network to developing essential skills for career advancement. However, as the costs of tuition rise each year, individuals need to explore alternative paths. With these tips, resources, and dedication, it is possible to get an MBA-level experience at a fraction of the price.