UNC’s $10 Million Online MBA Program

by John A. Byrne on

Marissa Hunt (Left) and Ben Walker (in green shirt) work with their team of online MBA students in San Francisco

Marissa Hunt and Ben Walker are trying hard to coax a few million bucks from four venture capitalists in a San Francisco conference room. But they’re pitching a rather peculiar idea and there’s skepticism all over the faces of the people they’re trying to sell.

The idea: a retractable shield that covers the top of a kitchen drawer when closed to keep out dust and prevent the drawer from jamming. They call the product “Drawer Shield” and the tagline they’re using to promote it is “Content protection with NO CATCH.”

“It’s made of sturdy material,” says Hunt, imagining something quite different than their prototype that is taped together from bits of Styrofoam, cardboard, paper and balsam wood. “Think of the cover on an iPad.”

“It’s really easy to install and real cheap,” insists Walker, trying to gin up some enthusiasm. “This can help sell kitchen cabinets.”

But no one is buying it. The feedback is tough.

“I personally have zero use for this,” says one potential investor.

“It’s just not a problem for me,” adds another.

Nonetheless, the four venture capitalists hand over $500,000, a pittance for the pitching pair who were hoping to get at least $2 million.

AN IMMERSION IN INNOVATION AND ENTREPRENEURIAL THINKING

Hunt and Walker are students studying for an MBA degree at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. The venture capitalists are fellow students handing out Monopoly cash. All of them are on a weekend immersion experience in San Francisco devoted to innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. It’s one of the very few times that Hunt and Walker will be with their classmates in person because they’re enrolled in a new and highly ambitious online MBA program dubbed MBA@UNC.

While online MBA degrees have been proliferating like daisies in an open field in recent years, Kenan-Flagler’s program is significantly different because it is the first time a top 20 school has put together an online effort with the publicly stated goal of making it the world’s best MBA program delivered over the Internet.

UNC’s partner, 2tor Inc., a startup with nearly $70 million in venture funding, is investing more than $10 million into this one effort alone. It also has online degree programs in nursing at Georgetown University as well as social work and education at the University of Southern California. Kenan-Flagler has 20 of its full-time professors, many of them considered the school’s best faculty, deeply involved in the online initiative, developing and recording special lectures and teaching live classes via the Internet.

A BOLD EFFORT TO MAKE ONLINE EDUCATION RESPECTABLE AND CREDIBLE

Together their goal is to make online education both respectable and credible. If they succeed, the number of MBA candidates in this $91,225, two-year program will vastly exceed Kenan-Flagler’s full-time MBA student population on-campus and the program will reach a worldwide audience.

“We’re not Phoenix,” insists 2tor CEO Chip Paucek, dissing the massive for-profit player in online education. “We’re not what you think of when you hear the word ‘online.’ Online education has been dominated by the for-profits, but nothing is even close to this in terms of quality. We’re doing this at the highest possible level.”

‘SAME FACULTY, SAME STUDENTS, AND SAME MBA CURRICULUM’

When UNC’s faculty voted to approve the move online, it did so with the understanding that MBA@UNC would be held to the high academic standards of its mainstream MBA program. “It’s the same faculty, the same students, and the same curriculum,” says Doug Shackelford, who teaches tax policy and business strategy at UNC and heads up the academic team for the online program. “We’re trying to design the gold standard for online MBA programs.”

Shackelford concedes that when he first heard that Kenan-Flagler was considering an online MBA program he was aghast. “Oh my God,” I thought, “the budget situation must be desperate. I told the dean (James W. Dean Jr.) that this is such a big bet that either he will be a hero for doing it or burned in effigy from a tree on campus if it fails.”

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  • Toromale

    UNC is late in the game to the Online MBA. There are many other National Universities offering online MBA programs. Wayne State University has been offering online MBA program for a long time. UNC program is way too expensive. It seems like most of the top 20 MBA programs are nearing $100K. Not sure how a public funded university can charge an exorbitant fee like $92K+ with books (Wayne State total is $50-60K for out of state students). UNC and other tops schools are making education only affordable for the rich.

  • Matt C

    Are you really comparing Wayne State to UNC?  I can be almost certain that over a lifetime someone coming out of a T20 school is going to make up the difference of the $40-$50K for investing in a better program.  Nothing against Wayne State but just in general the types of jobs/companies recruiting for top programs are going to pay well above the difference in tuition let alone the long term opportunities. 

    As far as education only for the rich, there are plenty of merit, need based, and side scholarships available that students rarely pay full tuition at top schools and more programs are starting to offer reimbursement for certain job sectors.  Although I’m sure you can find the outliers who got into the C-suite w/a low tier MBA on average its probably best to shoot for the highest ranked school that best fits you.

  • Ian

    I may be wrong, I often am, but doesn’t University of Indiana’s Kelley School of Business have an online program?  I believe it is nearly as highly ranked and has been doing it for a couple more years than UNC.

  • Dtg03

    Rankings are inordinatelyinordinately with the MBA. A lot of average schools offer online MBA programs. To compare Wayne State and UNC is a little deluded.

  • Susan B

    I like that Hunt has a spouse who is enrolled in a Phd. program. It’s important to have meaningful influences in your life. I think this illustrates the caliber of their student body, young, modern, intelligent, ambitious and wanting to make a diffrerence in the world. Bravo to UNC for waiting to get into the game until it was right for them, until they could see what was working in other programs and what wasn’t.

  • Romper91

    Not true. Unc isn’t an mba powerhouse (despite the rankings) and yes they are only out for the $$$. I see their little ad all over the internet for the online mba, it’s really sad to see a school stoop to such lowly standards.

  • Really?

    Eventually the MBA bubble will burst. It is already happening with law schools.  People just love being indentured servants these days I guess. At this point, an online MBA is an online MBA.  Alot of the prestige of an MBA from the viewpoint of a resume reader is the difficulty it takes to get into a top program.  UNC online and Wayne State online are both easy to get into.  If I see a UNC MBA on a resume and see the individual has never lived in North Carolina, I won’t be impressed.  Seriously people, open your eyes to investing $100k and stop being lemmings.

  • Isabella Munez

    UNC’s online MBA is overrated and incidentally overpriced. Certainly fewer scholarships around for online MBA. There are equal and tested online MBA from other good Business Schools with lower tuition fees. Don’t buy all the UNC hype, UNC is closer to Phoenix. In the end the business model is: Create a cheap teaching platform and pile up a high stack of students. Presto, profit. This strategy is highly controversial even among UNC’s faculty.

  • tiger1083

    I have been VERY skeptical about UNC’s online program.  I immediately thought Phoenix and degree mill when I first heard about it.   I sheepisly confess now that my thoughts are different after the experience of my brother-in-law who is now one of their students.  I tried to talk him out of looking at UNC, especially since he is really smart and very accomplished professionally–meaning that I thought he was material for a very top tier program.  He applied to Columbia, NYU and UNC.  He was admitted to all 3 schools, and he chose UNC.  I was shocked when he told me his choice.  He told me that his decision was hard but when he weighed out everything, he decided that UNC was the best choice for him.   He has been in the program a few months now and has shared a lot about it and his classmates with me.  As much as I hate to admit it, I think I may have been wrong with my assumptions about their program.  Lesson for me for whatever it’s worth:  Don’t judge the book by its cover. 

  • JohnAByrne

    Yes, it does have an online program and a very good one. We’ve written about it before.

  • $$$Kidding?

    $91,225 really? non-profit? really?

  • Tinatoledo31

    unc isn’t’ an mba powerhouse? really? they are consistently ranked in the top 20 overall and ranked in the top 5 when it comes to quality of faculty/teaching. what holds it back from being ranked higher is the salary bias that sometimes factors into ratings. most of unc’s grads stay in the southeast and still pull in on average close to what schools in the top 10 pull in when accounting for cost of living

  • Guest411

    You dont see all an individuals previous addresses on a resume.  You see UNC…. 

  • Guest411

    The fact is, many people who have a good career do not want (or its not financially feasible) to put their professional trajectory on hold to pursue a residential MBA.  Additionally, for those who do not live in an area where they have access to a top tier b-school, this provides an option outside of relocating to another area.  Basically, in UNC’s program, you get the top tier degree without sacrificing your current lifestyle.  That is appealing to many successful professionals.

  • Bill_G

    You kind of do.  Most of the people doing online MBAs are doing them part time.  So if you’ve never had an employer in NC and you don’t have a two year employment gap preceeding your degree then its pretty obvious you earned the thing online.

  • Another Guest

     Not to mention it’ll naturally come up in conversation: “Oh you got your MBA from UNC?  Chapel Hill is awesome!  Where did you live?  Do you know so-and-so?”

    “Err…”

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