Sunday, April 16, 2006

Paving The Career Path - Part 2

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( continued )

In choosing a school, therefore, you will have to know your requirements. If you are young and have little or no effective work experience, you need to get into the best-known program you can afford, which offers the sort of degree you are seeking. Be sure to keep an open mind, however, and measure not what the street says but a value based on the qualities you are looking for in specific. If, like me, you are old enough to have done a few things with your life, the resume will have a greater impact on your course, and the school has less influence than the degree, provided your school meets reasonable standards. If you are young, by the way, don’t forget the internship, which not only is pretty standard for young MBA students but a great way to create an opening for your first position after graduation. If you are older, like me, internship is not an option, so keep that in mind as well.

I strongly advise anyone to make their own decisions, because what fits one person may not be right for someone else. In the case of the University of Phoenix, for example, I cannot say whether that school is good or bad for an MBA, because I don’t know the exact situation of the person considering or attending the school. I will say that once you begin graduate studies at a school, you are not going to want to drop that school unless you are completely unhappy with it, because most graduate schools I have spoken with will not accept transfer credits from another graduate school, especially if it is from a different region or accrediting body. So if you are already attending the University of Phoenix in pursuit of an MBA, you would need to weigh the cost of throwing away everything you’ve done up to that point, although if your grades are good, that could help with your application to another school.

Maybe explaining how I decided on my schools for application will help. I began by considering all AACSB-accredited business schools in the U.S., which gave me more than 400 possible choices. I trimmed that list pretty fast, however, when I decided that moving from the Houston area was not a possibility, especially since I could not afford to give up my full-time job, and it would be an unacceptable burden on my wife and daughter. That dropped the list down quickly to only a hdnful of schools. Next, I considered whether I could manage to go to school full-time and decided no. That meant considering only part-time programs at area AACSB-accredited schools, and that is a short list, folks. In my case it lowered the count to Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas A&M in the Woodlands, Tulane University, or the University of Texas Houston MBA program. It got worse when I considered what was needed to participate in these programs. Starting times for classes, as well as on-site residency requirements, further cut down the feasibility. So much so that I added Houston Baptist University and the University of St. Thomas to the list as possible contenders, even though neither is AACSB-accredited. I began to feel that I could not find a program which was a good fit, and given the commitment a student makes at that level, this is a serious issue. So I backed off from AACSB, and did some more research. I mentioned that full-time studies was not viable for me. I recognize that this takes away some of the experiences that make the MBA path, such as face-to-face peer discussion in class and on-campus recruiting later. It also removes the possibility of internships, though at my point in work that’s not so big a deal. I point it out here because of what it means for younger students.

So, back to the search engines, and once again I had to consider the value and limits of online education. It’s no surprise that I found it easy to get information from the University of Phoenix, Capella, and similar for-profit schools. And as I have mentioned before, these schools are fully accredited at the regional level, the same as many traditional ‘brick and mortar’ schools. Such schools exist for the simple fact that many people cannot attend school in the old way. They either do not have a schedule which allows them to meet the demands of even many part-time programs. For some reason, a lot of schools do not offer starting times which allow working people a decent chance to get from work to the campus, to say nothing of the Saturday-only programs which are the best face-to-face option I have seen yet. I can only conclude that because of the functional difficulties for the universities, most schools with a significant reputation do not feel compelled to make their schedule ‘student-friendly’, since they get all they need through the traditional methods. Of course, that cuts out a lot of smart people with solid experience, but that would not be the first time a school proved unaware of real-world conditions. Not to insult the schools which are not attentive to experienced people, but it seems to be that a Business School should be more responsive to people who have real Business experience. When schools cater only to students with theoretical experience, that explains how people like Ken Lay can happen, officers who have never had to look too deep below the surface to test their theories. I have a sneaking suspicion that sometime in the future, those schools which have paid the most attention to veteran businesspeople will gain prestige for the accomplishments of their students, while schools which insist on remaining on old-style methods will find themselves less in touch with evolving business practices. This should give hope to people who attend schools like Capella and U-Phoenix; while the schools lack respect now from many employers, the degree is solid enough and over time, the eventual emergence of successful alumni from those schools will win respect, albeit slowly.

But the AACSB holds its respect for good reason, and many of its members also have learned the value of offering online MBAs. More than a hundred of its U.S. member schools, in fact, offer an online MBA, which blew up the roster of candidate schools again. This I sorted out by examining two critical components; residency requirements and cost. Many schools, even when offering an online degree, have certain minimum expectations of campus time, and if the distance was too far or the amount of time beyond feasibility, that scratched them for me. Also, state schools charge tuition according to the residency state of their students, so Texas schools would be significantly less expensive for me than out-of-state schools. For the most part, private schools either did not offer an onine MBA, or their tuition was already beyond my scope. Don’t misunderstand me please; if a school was expensive but offered a significantly higher level of professional advantage, it could be worth the cost. In the same way, a school which was less expensive might not be the best choice if the resulting degree could not be expected to procure the openings I want. So, to get to the point, I wanted schools with names people would recognize, which offered a serious MBA and within practical cost and effort ranges. When it was all sorted out, my top three choices were the University of Texas at Dallas, Texas A&M University - Commerce, and the University of Houston at Victoria. All three schools offer an MBA on generally the same level as their home schools at UT, A&M, and UH, all three are themselves specifically credentialed as accredited members of the AACSB. All three offer low tuition to Texas residents, and all three offer a program which is almost completely online. So these three schools are my primary selections. You may note that I chose UT-Dallas instead of UT-Austin; this is because UT-Austin does not offer an online MBA. The same for Texas A&M; the College Station campus does not offer an online MBA. And again the same for UH; the Houston campus does not offer an online MBA. What Dallas, Commerce, and Victoria have in common is the high standard of their home school, but the need to go online to bring in students they cannot recruit in normal way, because of their geographic location. From conversations I have had with advisors at the schools, the online students are treated on the same level as any other, which means the same expectations and comparable results; in a low student-to-teacher ratio and with a flexible access to the professors for questions and assignment, the conditions are ideal for a disciplined and self-motivated student.

So, having decided on these schools, I took my GMAT and sent my scores in to the schools, followed by my undergrad transcript. I asked managers at my company to send in letters of recommendation to the schools, and I have completed my online applications. The next step is completing the essays and sending them in with my resume. Then I will have to wait and see. I mentioned these steps, because I want the reader to understand that any significant school is going to want a lot of information from applicants, and if a school is not diligent when you apply, you have a warning sign early on about how they will regard you later on into the program.

[ to be continued ]

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