Bringing Prestige & Status to the Online MBA

When the dean of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School first broached the idea of launching an online MBA program, his faculty and students were highly skeptical. “Many of our full-time MBA students are not convinced this is a good idea,” says Dean James W. Dean. “They underestimate the challenge of what it is for people to remain in their jobs and work and study for the degree.”

Even Dean concedes that he had doubts. “To be honest, I was initially skeptical,” he says. “I wondered: Can you really do an MBA online that you could be proud of? I came around to the idea that this was a great opportunity for us and could change the nature of business education at the top schools.”

The upshot: This July, Kenan-Flagler will be the highest ranked business school in the U.S. to offer an online MBA program. In the initial class, the school expects to enroll 50 students at a cost of $89,000 each, a price tag that includes up to four weekend residencies at different locations around the world. UNC is partnering with 2tor Inc., a company that provides the technology platform and instructional design to deliver courses online.

The two-year program, dubbed MBA@UNC, will feature pre-arranged live sessions that employ live streaming video as well as archived lectures and interactive simulations that can be accessed 24/7. Case study and lecture discussions also will be in both real time and via forum boards. “The level of intimacy will be at least as high or higher than in the classroom because there are fewer people involved,” says Dean. “You can hide in the back row in a classroom, but if you are one of ten on a computer screen you can’t.”


Online MBA degrees, of course, are nothing new. About 11,000 MBA students are currently studying for online MBAs at some 90 schools accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools, the same accrediting body that gives approval to the Harvard’s and Stanford’s of the B-school world.  Accredited institutions with online MBA programs include the University of Florida, Arizona State, and Penn State. The largest for-profit player, the University of Phoenix, has been offering an online MBA since 1989. More than half of its 66,000 graduate students are enrolled as MBA candidates, and Phoenix now buys more case studies from the Harvard Business School than any other institution.

But very few of the online players boast the prestige of the Kenan-Flagler Business School, which typically ranks among the top 20 U.S. MBA programs. “If you look at the trend, it started out that the only providers were low quality and low reputation,” Dean says. “Over the last few years, there’s been a gradual migration toward the top so you see lots of reputable schools offering these programs. It follows the pattern of disruptive innovation, which starts from the outside and then makes its way inside.”

Some believe that high quality MBA degrees are likely to follow the pattern of how socially acceptable online dating has become.“Ten or 12 years ago, online dating seemed to have some scary edge to it,” says Ian Van Tuyl, who as vice president of production at 2tor is working with UNC faculty to build the curriculum. “Today even your grandmother is urging you to go online and find someone. My sense is that online degrees will become as accepted as online dating is today.”

IE Business School in Spain arguably has the high status global online program available today. The 15-month program has four 32-student cohorts a year, three in English and one in Spanish. With the exception of two one-week residencies at its main campus in Madrid, the entire program is online (see story on IE’s Global MBA Online). The cost: about $50,000 for an MBA. Since the launch of the program in 2001, IE has turned out about 1,000 MBAs, a number that includes grads in its specialized business master’s programs in sports, digital marketing and biotech. “We’re looking at our peer competitors and we can’t believe they are not getting into this,” says David Bach, associate dean of MBA programs at IE. “There is going to be a lot more of these programs at top schools. Companies haven’t cut back on training and development as much as they have cut back on travel. So if you can provide high quality instruction anywhere in the world without people having to get on a plane, that is a competitive advantage.”


In the U.S., the pioneering top-rated institution so far has been Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. Now ten years old, Kelley Direct boasts 1,500 current students on five continents, with roughly 40% of them in graduate business programs in partnership with such firms as John Deere, United Technologies, and Cummins. Indiana’s program also requires two one-week residencies at its main campus in Bloomington. The total cost: $57,000. Most students complete the MBA in 27 months though the coursework can be spread over five years.

Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business boasts a pricey $146,600 hybrid program, with five short, in-person residency sessions at its campus in Durham, N.C. as well as London, St. Petersburg, Dubai, New Delhi, Shanghai and Singapore. In between each residency, there’s about two months of learning from home via online classroom sessions, team projects and exams. Some 116 students from 105 countries are enrolled this 15-month-long Global Executive MBA program.

Not everyone is convinced that online instruction is a quality substitute for an MBA program that brings together faculty and students on a campus for two years. Dave Wilson, CEO of the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT exam, says he believes online education is best suited for “rudimentary” courses in basic accounting or finance. “I’m not convinced you can use technology for deeper Socratic inquiries between a professor and the students,” says Wilson.

  • JP

    To Spencers final statement, “Another knock against online MBAs is that career changers don’t have access to the all important summer internship.”  

    I have to say if you’re working already an internship is irrelevant.  As for those people that want to change careers an MBA from a highly accredited program helps break a tie.  Experience, an excellent resume, solid references, strong work ethic, and being able to interview effectively are the most important pieces to any job search.  If you have an MBA without the other 3 out of the 5 qualities I mentioned it’ll be tough finding any type of work.  And anyone that has all those skills and is not employed is lazy or is cursed with an unrealistic sense of entitlement!  

  • Robinboca

    You have to experience on-line education to know exactly what you are talking about. The rest is conjecture.

    I have attended several universities as an ungraduate and grad student at Boston University, U. of Wisconsin and the U. of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. I am also graduating in with a B.S. inBusiness Administration from Kaplan University.

    I love campus life but there is a point in life when it no longer is possible to attend a campus program. I had a wonderful time at Kaplan, the pace was fast, I didn’t have to sit in a classroom and I found it just as challenging in most classes as those in my previous education.

    What I found is that all of the professors are working at real jobs in the field that they teach, not just holding academic degrees. I also found that since most professors are ad-hoc that they also hold “day jobs” in very prestigious corporate positions or professorships at prestigious universities. The variety of opportunitiies is enormous. Like in any other school, you have to seek them out and join them. There is a placement center but my best references come from professors who are executives in the business that I want to work in.

  • Arun

    Very good discussion. THanks for sharing the experiences, views and opinions. Can someone comment on career growth / shift opportunities of online mba? Is it as good as regular mba?

  • danielbarn

    I think that online MBAs are a really good option for people who want to become proficient in the areas of marketing, finance, public relations, HR, business development, etc., but do not have the time or the luxury to physically attend classes. Whether you’re working, running your own business, or raising a family, an online MBA degree from an accredited college is worth its weight in gold because it gives you the credentials and knowledge required to gain employment, get promoted, or run your business successfully, and still allow you to fulfill your responsibilities.

  • Good discussion here. I’m currently enrolled in an online MBA program through the UMass Amherst and I am very happy with the quality of the program (so far). I didn’t go into the program looking for prestige, I just wanted to learn about business and the program has been exceptional in this regard. No complaints!

  • Jeffrey Macias

    I think in human nature we tend to take the perspective of the current environment. Of course in any online MBA there is a chance that someone will look at this a not the same as my MBA, this is only human nature. Remember the joke when I was your age I walked to school up hill both ways?

    The big difference that won’t be played out for a few more years is that the people going through online MBA’s will eventually replace the decision makers who devalue them.

    It takes a little bit of futuristic thinking, which MBA’s in my opinion generally lack, because current with most coursework they are taught to think in financial quarters as opposed to decades. If you research this point, look at how the top schools are re-looking at their programs and revising them as evidence.

    I work for a global corporation I work 50-60 hours per week, I make over $100K per year, I have 2 small children, and I am doing an online MBA that is being payed for in full by my corporation. Do the NPV.

    One last point, online MBA’s do mimick the way real work is actually structured, my on campus experience quite frankly didn’t. Online MBA’s do enhance your skills of being able to work virtually to accomplish task and goals.

    I do think AACSB is critical, the course work is the same and to be quite honest my experience thus far has made me a much more effective manager, in the end it’s about challenging your brain, you get out what put into it, one site or virtually.

    I’ll be doing a live Webinar next week for Washington State University, many of these points I will bring up. We have entered a new era of and those institutions that lead in this space will have a competitive advantage over those late to the game.