Monday, February 08, 2010

How to Choose an Online MBA School, 2010 edition

In my prior articles, I noted that online MBAs have grown rapidly in credibility and value in the past decade, while at the same time the student must chose carefully which path to take to earning an MBA. A Masters of Business Administration is the capstone for many business professionals; there are few reasons to seek a Doctorate, and while there are a number of licenses one may pursue, such as the CPA license for accountants, which enhance the MBA degree, the MBA is a fundamental identity statement for a professional, and so the school where the degree is earned should be a very careful decision. There is no guarantee that earning an MBA from a certain school will guarantee you a job at all, let alone the position you desire in the company you wish to join. But it is true that a good choice of schools can improve your professional profile, and in combination with well-presented experience and career accomplishments can make your resume compelling to the decision-makers who review your application.

In earlier articles I mentioned the sort of student who would, I think, thrive in the different environments of the varying MBA programs. So far as online programs go, there are essentially three types of ‘online’ programs:

[] Minimal online participation - a growing number of schools offer at least some courses online. This makes the curriculum a bit more convenient, but it’s not a true online degree, since the barriers of time and travel would still apply. As a rule, for my purposes a school is not an online school in terms of earning an MBA unless no more than six hours of coursework must be completed on site or at specific sites. In the same way, satellite locations do not count as online schools.

[] Periodic Campus Residence Requirement – a number of programs offer online degrees, but include a requirement of three-to-six weeks of residence a year on campus. This is usually tied to a project or special event, ostensibly in support of the program but too often used to promote the university as a future fundraising beneficiary. I do not consider such programs to be a true online MBA, since the time and logistics required make the program untenable for many students who seek an online MBA.

[] Pure online curriculum – this used to be very rare, but is gaining popularity, due to the fact that so many experienced managers returning to school for their MBA can only commit to an online regimen. The ability to supervise work and examinations (especially with the use of proctors at satellite sites and virtual proctors online) and the ability to use online tools to improve the quality of discussions, group projects and virtual teams all have direct real-world applications value for businesses, and so the online student can offer an advantage to employers as a result of his curriculum. This makes online study an asset rather than a liability.

My review of online MBA schools, therefore, will be limited to discussion of schools which allow the majority of work to be performed online, and are accredited by the AACSB, the Association for the Advancement of Collegiate Schools of Business. Before I go on about the rest of my criteria, let me explain why the AACSB is so important.

The AACSB was founded in 1916, so it’s one of the oldest accrediting groups for business schools in existence, and it’s also the largest, a worldwide organization with 579 accredited member schools (46 for undergraduate only programs, 51 for graduate only programs, 482 for both undergraduate and graduate programs).

The original founding schools include Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, New York U, Northwestern, Ohio State, Tulane, Cal-Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Purdue, Illinois Nebraska, Penn, Pittsburgh, the University of Texas, Wisconsin-Madison, and Yale University.

Essentially, every significant school of business has been accredited by the AACSB. Also, the accreditation process is ongoing, so that accredited schools are required to show continual improvement, and includes both self-evaluation and peer review. Most AACSB schools also have regional accreditation and according to the affiliation of the school. The AACSB accreditation therefore is the single most consistent designation that establishes the school meets reasonable expectations of academic quality and ethical standards. The AACSB, in turn, is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Specific standards used by the AACSB for accreditation may be found at its website.

So, I have established that my MBA candidate schools must offer a mainly-online (no more than six hours of face-to-face coursework required) curriculum, at a business school accredited by the AACSB. Tuition cost for out-of-state residents (including fees and service charges), availability of specialized concentrations and dual degrees (such as MBA-JD or MBA-MD programs), average GMAT score and Student/Faculty ratio are all major factors in consideration. Ranking of the full-time program by major periodicals is a minor factor, as is the availability. The 2008-9 profile for each school published on the AACSB website is used for initial consideration. Web information provided directly by the school’s site builds the rest of the report for a school.

This is the foundation for my continuing rankings of Online MBA programs. Further detail as to qualities considered and their weighting will be discussed when I release the results. But I also want to emphasize the chief value of online programs, that in today’s knowledge-based professional world, there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all, nor is any one program the best for everyone seeking an MBA. To my mind, there are generally five categories of people seeking MBAs, though again I caution everyone to think long and hard about their personal needs and goals before considering how they want to build their future. Generally though, there are students who proceed to Graduate school directly from their Bachelors’ degree; there are people seeking to add the MBA to another professional appellation, such as a J.D. or an Engineering degree, because they want to add business value to a vocational specialty; there are people who have work experience but who want to move into Management; there are Managers who have business experience and want a degree that quantifies their ability and skills; and there are managers or business students who intend to become Chief officers at the top private and public firms, and who believe that the most prestigious school is necessary to achieve that end (a fiction, when history is considered, but a popular myth all the same).

A traditional face-to-face full-time program at a prestigious business school ranked by major periodicals is the closest thing to a sure winner, since the programs will teach all of the expected skills, the name recognition at the school will give good opportunities at major firms and may well provide an advantage for six-figure positions. However, such programs often are prohibitively expensive, are resistant to changing business realities (as an example, most prominent business schools downplayed the importance of Risk Management until after the financial crisis of 2008 became apparent), and while rich in theoretical knowledge, are often siloed apart from grassroots business experience. Also, the cost-effectiveness of such programs for anyone not able to find a position paying more than $200,000 a year is, at best, dubious. It is my recommendation to anyone considering a Masters in Business Administration to get the best degree they can afford, but not to be fooled into believing that a big price tag means a better education or opportunity. In the first group, students just finishing a Bachelors’ degree, the school you went to, the amount of debt you carry and can afford to take on, your GMAT scores and GPA all combine to indicate the level you should consider. Generally, young students can best handle the regimented structure of the on-campus cohort, but the debt load should be carefully considered and I would strongly recommend discussions with companies you would like to work for, to find out what sort of degree they want to see.

For students seeking to combine an MBA with another professional license or degree, keep in mind whether your program can offer everything you need, and again what pedigree will impress your desired employer – law firms and medical associations, for example, may well care most about your ‘primary’ degree and only concern themselves with an MBA to the degree that you have one and do well in earning it. People who are thinking about moving in Management, should be particularly sensitive to what the degree will do for them. That is, only certain kinds of people ever get the chance to become CEOs of major corporations, whether private or public. Generally, these are the people who found such companies and build it, or who join the company as a ‘fast-track’ hire, whose degree may impress but more often they had a connection, a mentor or more often a high-ranking patron who opened the door for them that most people never see. That’s not to say you can’t do well without that opportunity, but there is no ‘magic wand’ associated with the top name schools. Your work defines your opportunity, in most cases, and therefore the school becomes less important as your experience grows and you demonstrate a true work history. I have seen many solid executives build their career through hard work and an MBA from a ‘little’ school, but never one who went to a top school but did not also do the work to earn the promotions. Therefore, careful consideration of the school’s cost, its name recognition, its growth in the past decade and its suitability to your personal career goals are all vital factors to include in your decision.