Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Distance MBA – Revisiting the Decision

Spring is the season of new beginnings and renewal, and that includes consideration of continuing education. High school juniors begin to plan for college, high school seniors eagerly (or anxiously) wait for word from the school of their choice, and many adults examine the merits of going after a degree or an advanced degree. I noticed that a fair number of my readers here when I post articles on the MBA degree get here by way of a search engine that hit on the letters ‘MBA’, and no wonder – there is basically an urban myth that earning yourself an MBA is the ticket to a solid job with good money. So I have to start by shooting that meme down.

An MBA, no matter where you receive yours, does not guarantee you anything. You might be able to parley the degree and school name into an interview for a position, but if the company is even half what it should be, you will still have to prove your credentials to win the job, let alone keep it and succeed in the company. Getting your MBA is not the focus you should have, nor should you get too proud or worried about your school – you should focus on earning your MBA, as in learning, claiming, and installing the tools that a good program offers for the students willing to do the work and grow in skills and maturity. Consequently, anyone earning an MBA should, when considering the school, focus on what tools and opportunity for development that school offers. Take a look at the backgrounds of the biggest crooks and failures in business, and you will see that some of them went to top-reputation schools, while some of the sharpest and most savvy businessmen do not always come from Stanford, Wharton, or Kellogg.

Full disclosure here; I am finishing up my degree at the University of Houston – Victoria, and I chose that school for reasons that suited my case better than they might suit someone else. I like the school and would certainly recommend the prospective student give UHV a look, but even so my first recommendation is to know what it is that you need. It would be impossible to list everything, but as an example students just finishing their bachelor’s have little real-world business experience, and so need a program which offers interneship opportunities and brings in lecturers who run their own business, while students pursuing their MBA after working in management will want to find programs which offer tools they do not already have; in my case I wanted more work in marketing strategy, as that is an area where my resume was relatively weak. I needed a school that was not excessive in cost or difficulty; raising a family and working a full-time management job meant that a distance degree might be the most suitable vector for my studies. That said, I did some research and found that for business schools, the AACSB accreditation is critically important. The AACSB is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an international accrediting body that focuses on management and accounting schools. Founded in 1916, the AACSB is the most recognized body which distinguishes first-rate business and accounting schools; schools like theHarvard Business School and Rice and the University of Texas (and UHV) are accredited by the AACSB; schools like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan are not. This does not mean that every AACSB school is the same in stature, but I would recommend against earning an MBA at a school which is not an AACSB member.

There are three chief differences between the traditional on-campus schools and distance curriculums. First, let’s be clear that there is a lot of prejudice out there – there are companies which judge education by whether the school is prominent, especially for higher-level positions. There is a kind of cowardice in such thinking, the notion that simply going to a certain school produces a more qualified candidate, and such thinking – like all prejudice – demonstrates a weakness in the target company’s organizational mindset, but you’d better understand that such thinking does exist, and many students go to obscenely expensive schools in the hope that they can mke that factor work for them. While choosing your school on the basis of what it can actually teach you, and performing your own cost-benefit analysis in that decision, means that you will miss the chance to join some of these companies, it should be recognized that you probably would be miserable working at a company where thinking was so hide-bound that where you went to school somehow limited your abilities as a manager or accountant; I speak with some experience here, and such companies do odd things like imagine that working inflexible M-F 8-5 hours and requiring a full suit at all times were necessary ingredients for success in business. Claiming the tools and honing the skills that make you as effective as possible in your work will not only make you more marketable in the long term, they also lead to a great deal more satisfaction in your career.

The second difference of note between the on-campus and distance schools, is the way you take your classes. In an on-campus class, you show up for the class when scheduled, take notes and participate in live discussion, complete and turn in your assignments when due and take tests in person. For the online class, you take tests and complete assignments, but your attendance is virtual, which some people take to mean something easier than attending a physical class. First off, just like an on-campus class, you will sometimes need to log in at a certain time for a lecture or seminar. But what’s more, you can’t just hide in the back of the room when you’re unprepared for an online class, the way you can in a campus classroom; the system notes not only how many times you answer questions or comment in a discussion, it also records the actual answer or comment, so its quality and context are there for everyone, including the professor, to see. Online class discussions therefore tend to be more substantive and relevant to the subject matter and instructional themes than the more traditional classes. Similarly, an online exam may require security measures to prevent cheating or misuse of resources, but physical separation of students from each other and the presence of a proctor work to create better security than some campus examinations can boast. And just in case someone has it in mind to try to get around the security in an online class, don’t forget that in the end the class is designed to teach tools and develop critical thinking skills that you will want to call upon when you are a working professional years later. Think long-term, and apply every opportunity to developing ways to be your best in every respect. In the online class, that means a lot of reading, a need to be very self-disciplined, especially in time management, and to thoroughly follow-up on every chance to answer questions or dig a little deeper than you have to to set yourself apart from the ordinary student.

The third way in which distance learning is different, is the cost in money and time. Now again, I have to be blunt – there are various levels of schools you can go to, and the value of your degree will depend on how well that school suits your abilities and goals. If you have it in mind to become a Fortune 500 CEO within ten years of getting your MBA, the only schools worth considering that can help you in any real sense will be those mentioned in publications like BusinessWeek, Forbes, or the Princeton Review. You will spend upwards of a quarter-million dollars, and even then you get no guarantee that the degree will be worth what it costs you. Before anyone dives into such a program, however, I would recommend they consider their personal profile. In my own case, for example, UHV was a much more appropriate choice because of my work history and my bachelor’s degree from Baylor. That is, my profile is solid but not a top-tier CEO, while on the other hand my previous degree gave me some school recognotion, so that my first need in an MBA program was one which was AACSB-accredited, offered real-world applicability, and was cost-effective. I would frankly recommend students take courses at schools which have physical campuses; this allows you a way to take face-to-face courses when that is more appropriate to the subject matter, it avoids the apparent stigma of the online-only schools, and it raises the profile of the school in the nominal opinion.

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