Online MBA Students May Face Challenges With Degree Reputation

Menachem Wecker

When they promote their online MBA programs, business schools that offer online executive education invariably refer to the flexibility those programs afford to students, who don't need to show up in a particular classroom at a specific time. Although MBA graduates may need to don suits when they later work in the C-suite, they can study in their pajamas if they go to b-school online, or more easily juggle an online MBA program with a full-time job.

But schools need to grapple with another aspect of online MBA programs' reputations--the notion that executive education delivered online may somehow be a downgrade from its brick-and-mortar counterparts. When the University of Delaware announced that its Lerner College of Business and Economics will launch an online MBA in spring 2013, the college's dean tackled the question of quality head on.

"This is not a diluted product, half an MBA or MBA 'lite,' but a full MBA tailored to the needs of a different target audience and offering the same quality Lerner College MBA that our residential students receive," Bruce Weber, the dean, told UDaily on Oct. 31, 2012.

Earlier that month, Columbia Business School announced the creation of its first online executive education program, Personal Leadership Online, which includes several courses but doesn't lead to an MBA degree. Hitendra Wadhwa, the professor who directs Columbia Business School's e-learning, distances the school from the wholly online-delivered MBA model.

"At the present stage, there are no plans for Columbia to offer MBA [or] EMBA programs online. We believe that the on-campus experience is integral to these journeys," he says.

[Read about how online MBAs are proliferating.]

That's a perspective on business education that doesn't resonate with Jared Barlow, assistant director of admission and recruitment for the Arizona State University Carey School of Business online MBA program.

"Students should feel confident attending an online MBA program offered by an AACSB-accredited institution," says Barlow, referring to the business school accreditor, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

At Arizona State, the same faculty members teach in the full-time, evening, weekend, online, and executive MBA programs, Barlow says, so employers should be assured that online MBA grads "will be able to effectively lead virtual teams because of their success in an online program."

But recruiters, who are more apt to weigh the reputation of the school than the way the MBA is delivered, aren't necessarily prioritizing skills that MBA students develop online, says Brad Remillard, cofounder and executive recruiter at IMPACT Hiring Solutions Executive Search in Orange County, Fla.

"For me as a recruiter and for my clients, it really depends more on the school than the online [delivery]," says Remillard, who writes a weekly job advice column for the Orange County Register and is the author of two books on hiring.

[Learn why online MBA students may face challenges finding mentors.]

Employers--who are Remillard's clients--often can't determine from candidates' résumés if their MBAs were obtained online or in person. Since employers may not particularly value online education, and students aren't required legally or ethically to volunteer that their MBA was delivered online, graduates of the MBA@UNC online program at University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School, for example, should simply note "MBA, North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the year [of graduation]," he says.

Employers are more critical of online, for-profit schools than of online programs offered by nonprofit schools, according to Remillard. A client once told him that an online MBA from a large for-profit school was "just like an advanced high school degree."

But despite their lack of enthusiasm for online MBA programs, hiring managers understand that online courses from top programs, such as Harvard Business School, are credible, according to Remillard. "If Harvard puts this on, it's probably a high-quality program," he says.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University and a consultant at the executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, agrees that schools' reputations matter. Still, an online MBA degree is better than no MBA, Trachtenberg says, particularly in government and military roles, where hiring managers care more about applicants having a master's degree--"They need to check a box"--than they do about the subject of the degree or where it is obtained.

[Read about how introverts may find refuge in online MBA programs.]

Ida Byrd-Hill started an online MBA at the for-profit Kaplan University but then transferred to an online executive MBA program at Strayer University, also a for-profit, because Kaplan wasn't rigorous enough for her.

Not only are Strayer's courses harder than her undergraduate classes were at University of Michigan--Ann Arbor, but Hill also thinks online MBAs can be tougher than in-person courses. "On-campus students have the luxury of verbal discussion and debate. Online, the discussion and debate is written, meaning each discussion question is a mini essay," she says.

But that doesn't mean that online MBA programs get the respect that Hill thinks they deserve. "I do not believe online MBAs are valued in the world yet," says Hill, president of Uplift, a nonprofit in Detroit that tries to motivate urban residents to transform their neighborhoods.

However much corporate America focuses on invention, it is slow to accept innovation, according to Hill. "As the corporate world embraces Web conferencing as the norm, and a person can attend any school around the world without leaving [his or her] home," she says, "I believe the online MBA will be valuable within the next 20 years--just not today."

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