Should You Get an Online MBA Degree?

A focus on standards is a common theme among the more legitimate online degree programs. Their directors emphasize faculty, requirements that don’t waver for any applicants, the GMAT, the institution’s history of traditional MBAs, and of course legitimate accreditation. AASCB, not the sole marker of quality but a strong one, accredits 485 institutions of higher learning in the field of business, including both undergraduate and graduate level as well as traditional as well as online options. The agency identifies around 70 online MBA options that it considers strong enough to get its stamp of approval.

Susan Cates, one of the architects of the online MBA at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler B-school, echoes Heischmidt’s concerns. UNC’s online program has been marketed as a particularly rigorous option comparable to any conventional route—and at $89,000, it should be. The program stresses peer engagement more than perhaps any other online program, with forums and connection to faculty constantly strengthened by new technology that, Cates stresses, couldn’t have been done 10 years ago. Students and professors will meet in live sessions online, all faces visible and voices heard. Professors can hold virtual office hours. The technology strives to resemble the social media world of today as well as allows students to review materials they’re struggling with.

The digital component, entitled MBA@UNC, kicks off with its first cohort this July. The first crop of students is still being finalized, according to Cates, but the number will likely be relatively small, perhaps three or four dozen. Cates is president and associate dean of executive development at Kenan-Flagler and understands the sensitivity surrounding online program standards. The students admitted so far, Cates says, have been “outstanding,” with GPA and GMAT scores equivalent to those in the traditional full-time program. She points to the program’s quality, its convenience, its credibility, and the fact that, in its first cohort, it has already attracted “top-notch candidates” as signs of how online programs have evolved into an experience that can be no different from traditional face-to-face education. MBA@UNC also pays special attention to career services and the way the degree will be perceived in the marketplace of education.

“We definitely had conversations with some major companies before moving down this path,” Cates, the executive director of MBA@UNC, explains.


B-school directors like Heischmidt and Cates don’t believe people should determine a program’s quality by the presence or absence of the word “online” in the title. Look to program rigor instead, they say. “If you get good inputs, you get good outputs,” Heischmidt says.

And sure enough, Phillips notes that for employers, it’s not whether a degree is earned online or not that makes much of a difference—it’s whether the employers recognize the university’s brand, according to GetEducated’s data. In surveys of Fortune 500 managers with hiring authority, GetEducated reports show that the perception of online programs has changed over the years. In 1989, the first year GetEducated surveyed corporations, fewer than 50% of the managers viewed a distance-learning degree “as good as” a traditional one. By 2009, more than 90% of managers surveyed did—but, Phillips points out, only if three conditions are met. These employers respect an online degree as long as 1) the online college also operates a traditional campus, 2) the name of the institution is known regionally or nationally, and 3) accreditation.

Despite the myriad choices out there, most people understand whether the MBA they pursue is legitimate or not, from a diploma mill or valid academia. GetEducated does receive some calls from people who “have no idea they’re being ripped off,” but also many who call to simply ask, “Is it illegal?” In some states, purchasing a fake degree counts as a misdemeanor.

Take out the fraudulent schools, and students wanting an online MBA program are left with the basic choice of for-profit and not-for-profit schools. The noise of for-profits generally wins out against non-profit universities, which typically forgo advertising and are content with smaller classes of perhaps 60 or so students. But Phillips cautions against a polarizing view that uplifts non-profit programs and condemns for-profit universities. The reality, she says, is not-for-profits are often more expensive, not less. Phillips also points out that non-profit universities can seem indifferent to student needs.

What Phillips laments most, amid all the choices, is lack of transparency from the institutions (public or private, for-profit or not), and a Congress rushing to catch up to the rise of Internet colleges. Senators initially called for a crackdown in 2004 after the GAO report about federal employees’ resumes came out, and other efforts followed. Congressman Tim Bishop (D-New York) has criticized the rise of diploma mills in recent years and has introduced, multiple times, the Diploma and Accreditation Integrity Protection Act, most recently as H.R. 1758 on May 5, 2011. The act proposes that the government prohibit the issue of diplomas not recognized by the Department of Education if the issue distorts “material fact concerning the course of study” as well as tackles deceptive advertising and unrecognized accreditation. The bill is currently referred to committee and it remains to be seen whether it will become law.

In the meantime, prospective MBA students simply have to do their homework as best they can, doing everything from looking up accreditations to gauging employer perceptions of programs. It ain’t easy, Phillips says.

“Consumers know how to buy toasters,” she says. “They don’t know how to buy college degrees.”