If you’re reading this, you’re either one of my regular readers or you have an interest in the Online MBA process. I ranked accredited schools of the AACSB (Association for the Advancement of Collegiate Schools of Business) last year in a ‘Top 25’ format, and I am doing so again this year, although this year I have a much more rigorous format and, I believe, a more objective and useful set of criteria and methodology for my ranking. Before I present my results, however, I want to discuss the MBA degree in general and the development of the online MBA program, the reason I am doing rankings of online MBA programs, and to discuss the selected criteria and why I am using it and how I am weighting that data.
The Master of Business Administration degree is a relatively new innovation, created for practical application of business skills and tools. This is an important point, because the online MBA represents an innovation on that degree. But I will come back to that. Because it’s also important to recognize that the MBA is an elite degree. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 85% of Americans graduate high school or earn a GED, about 53% of Americans have some college experience, but only about 28% of Americans earn a college degree, and only about 9% earn a postgraduate degree.
When you consider that advanced degrees include technical, legal, and medical degrees, the number of MBAs out there in the workforce is really quite small. This leads to several conditions:
1. People with MBAs are often considered to have superior business ability and experience. This is a problem if the individual does not actually have such skills or knowledge;
2. Being considered ‘elite’ sometimes goes to a person’s head, and they become arrogant and offensive;
3. People who do not have MBAs often believe that getting an MBA will improve their career prospects
I mention this here, because not everyone can really benefit from earning an MBA. The degree is a tool, and it depends on what you do with it, how well it works for you. Also, in my experience there are four types of people with regard to the MBA:
I. Some people earn an MBA and gain insights into how to make the most effective use of their skills, to maximize advantages and opportunity, and become leaders who transform their companies;
II. Some people get an MBA and become arrogant energy parasites who kill morale and damage their company through incompetence and greed;
III. Some people do not need an MBA to accomplish their potential, and make their success through independent effort;
IV. Some people can make good use of an MBA, but they cannot go to a campus for two or three years to attend morning and afternoon classes.
There is a bias against online degrees in many places, but the reasons for such bias are rapidly becoming invalid. With regard to the MBA, let’s consider why a person seeks that degree. There are five key tools that an MBA candidate should acquire in earning his or her MBA:
 The candidate’s thinking moves from tactical (my job, my department, my situation) to strategic (the company, the community, the long-term prospects and needs)
 The candidate develops their leadership ability, and takes charge of problem-solving, initiative to tackle projects and challenges, and finding opportunity
 The candidate learns to build teams and understand the process and value of team-building, not only for specific projects but also building a network of colleagues for discussion, planning, and evaluation
 The candidate learns how to identify and communicate effectively with stakeholders of all kinds, to minimize risk and obstacles and to discover opportunity and growth, and to build a community network that builds brand value through good corporate citizenship
 The candidate learns effective methods to resolve disputes, including analysis of cause and effect, key stakeholders and their concerns, and the key objectives of all concerned parties
You may note that none of those key goals require the candidate to attend a traditional MBA program. There are very different ways to earn an MBA, and each has advantages as well as disadvantages. The traditional MBA pathway includes the full-time and part-time programs, and focuses on face-to-face classroom lectures, discussions, and examinations. The online MBA pathway depends on the virtual classroom and web-based resources. The distinction between each path may be seen in the following points:
1. The traditional path focuses on face-to-face personal interaction, which allows candidates to study as a community and develop teams for study and projects through common behavior traits such as common age, gender, and superficial attraction. Many traditional schools set their candidates up into cohorts, who will take the same classes at the same time and place as their colleagues, creating a direct sense of community. On the other hand, online candidates first perceive their peers through classroom discussion and so develop impressions through the strength of their intellect and use of words and concepts. Also, since online candidates are not forced into artificial communities, they interact with a wider range of candidates from different stages in the program, and the flexibility of online programs brings in more experienced professionals, who can speak to the direct effects of theoretical concepts in the real work world.
2. Traditional MBA candidates see and interact directly with faculty, and can personally visit the professors regularly. Of course, this is an advantage only if the student/faculty ratio is small and the professor keeps his office schedule, something not that common in universities. Also, the online MBA candidate is known to the professor by his or her participation in class discussions, and the quality of his or her work on assignments and projects. The online candidate also had the opportunity to ask a question in real-time discussions without fear of being ignored, because the question appears in the chat text and is not lost to crowd noise or misunderstanding. Over time, the online student also has the advantage of being identified primarily by his or her work, rather than on irrelevant appearances.
3. Traditional MBA candidates can easily form study groups with students they meet in class or on campus. The whole idea of a campus, after all, is to create a place which encourages study and conversation among students. They can also form project teams and establish networks for later collaboration. However, online MBA candidates can also form virtual teams with equal ease, and they may meet online or in person as they choose with greater flexibility. Note also that the use of e-mails and other electronic means of communication creates more durable access, which may continue after graduation from the university and therefore creating greater network value than nominal methods.
4. Traditional MBA candidates have direct access to the professor teaching each class, and may have an advantage from being able to see and react to instructors’ demeanor and personality. However, online candidates do not have to dear being judged on superficial appearance, and can submit questions or ask for guidance in online format, where time constraints are far less pressing.
5. Most major corporations have a bias in favor of traditional face-to-face programs, especially full-time MBA candidates. This gives traditional MBA candidates broader opportunity at job fairs and face-to-face campus interviews. However, the online MBA candidate generally has superior work experience and job-specific skills related to coursework that are less emphasized in traditional programs, such as virtual team-building, teleconferencing, and online project documentation. When the online MBA candidate goes into an interview, he/she will be better equipped to offer immediate application of relevant work skills.
Each method has advantages and disadvantages, but it’s important to recognize that the online MBA program is distinct from the traditional MBA program in its organization, requirements, and results. This is a vital point to understand when deciding your own path to the MBA. While the material covered in online courses is identical to that covered in face-to-face classes, the method by which the candidate learns the material and presents his/her work, and by which the candidate builds contact networks for study and project teams, is distinctly separate from the nominal classroom approach, and the candidate who stands out in the online program must be more mature, disciplined and better-organized than one seeking to shine in more traditional settings. An example of this can be seen in the classroom discussion, a vital forum for an MBA-level curriculum.
Rather than simply read from the text and recite the appropriate maxims and formulae, MBA candidates discuss cases and context, to explore the full scope of relevant issues and to not only answer the question with an effective solution, but learn how to apply the strategic lesson holistically, and also to listen to alternate solutions so that in real life the answer can still be found, even if the individual does not know the answer himself. The problem with the traditional face-to-face classroom, is that it’s too easy for a slacker to coast along, for a braggart to steal credit for someone else’s idea or explanation, and for room noise to make it hard for a student to be heard or understood clearly. In the online classroom, the bad news is that discussion and participation are much more stringently tracked and graded – I have known professors who dropped students from an online class for failing to contribute in substance to discussions. The online class tracks every keystroke of a comment and identifies not only the person making the entry, but the date, time and length. The professor can sort through comments to find the most valid and effective observations and insights, and more than a few candidates in online classes find that the difference between an A and a B in a class depends on the quality of their discussions.