THE BENEFITS OF THE PROGRAM
Naturally, this model helps Auburn keep costs low. By using the same faculty and lectures for both on campus and online students, Auburn can use the same material for two sets of students using their existing infrastructure. But the strategy also delivers a richer educational experience too.
For starters, online students step into a classroom where “it’s like it happened just now,” Harris says. “We can talk about whatever happened in The Wall Street Journal today and they can see it that night. They’re immediately up-to-date.” In fact, online students often contact faculty to suggest discussion topics for the next class. The real value, according to Harris, is that online MBAs “get the experience of hearing what others have to say about an issue. It’s not just the professor’s perspective. They hear what their (on campus) peers think and how the professor reacts.”
Online students also benefit from flexibility. With professionals carrying heavy workloads and travel schedules, students can take as few as one class a semester. Harris also refers to Auburn’s online program as “asynchronous.” By that, he means that, unlike some programs, students don’t need to be in front of their computers at a specific time. As a result, working professionals can watch lectures when it is convenient for them….and that’s usually not during school hours.
Bottom line: These students can continue working full-time while earning an MBA. “They don’t have to give as much up,” says Harris. “You can see your son or daughter play a soccer game. You don’t have to give up your career. You can move if company wants you to…You can make investments in your family and community. That’s a hard proposition to beat…and [it’s] hard to put a number on that.”
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
Despite its low cost proposition, Auburn’s online program has its critics. While U.S. News ranks Auburn’s online MBA program very high on faculty quality and admissions selectivity, they score them lower on technology and student engagement. While acknowledging the criticism, Harris also attributes a portion of the scores to the questions asked by U.S. News. “With technology, we were knocked for not doing streaming audio. But we do streaming video with audio. We were dinged for not having 24-hour technical support…but students have emails and cell numbers [of faculty and support staff].” Some of it is an artifact of what and how things are measured.”
Hernandez concurred with Harris’s depiction of the support. “The distance coordinator and support was excellent. I got prompt responses to calls or emails.” An anonymous student from a 2013 exit survey adds, “The flexible hours available for outreach students have to put a strain on the professors’ time, but you never felt like a burden or bother.”
On student engagement, Harris, who started in his position last year, is working to better involve online students. The program already has an outreach office and an advisor to keep an eye on online students. While the 2013 exit survey contained mostly positive feedback from graduates, Harris did notice a pattern.
“In our program, we have a huge capstone project, where we mix teams of online and campus students [who work together for a semester] to help a sponsoring business with a strategic issue. These teams present their analysis to these companies and then we have a celebration…What I’m finding is that [online] students wished they’d come on campus sooner.”
As a result, Harris is looking for ways to minimize the costs for online students to join their campus brethren at orientation. “I want them to meet the folks they watch in class [and interact with online]…and to get a better sense of Auburn as a town and a university…We pride ourselves on making [students] feel like they’re part of the Auburn family.” However, he adds that translating this familial bond can sometimes be their biggest challenge with distance students.
Still, Auburn has fostered strong relationship with many online MBA alumni. Loren Neuenschwander, a 2003 graduate and SVP and CFO of Endeavor Air, jokes that he still regularly talks to friends in the MBA office even 10 years after he graduated. And Mitch Kingston, a 2006 graduate and sales director at MARS Incorporated, appreciates the school’s alumni outreach and engagement. He says these efforts have resulted in “alumni coming back to campus to consult on curriculum, teach courses, get involved in capstone courses, and assist in developing students.”
DO ONLINE PROGRAMS STILL GET A BAD RAP?
Although online MBA programs sometimes get rapped for being “MBA light,” Harris doesn’t buy that argument. “How can it be light if they’re doing exactly what the on campus students are doing? It’s the same courses, lectures, professors, exams, expectations, assignments. You have a point of reference. You get the same as what is on campus…That’s our trump card at Auburn – We never have to fight that battle.”
However, Harris is more cautious when asked whether other MBA programs are overpriced compared to Auburn’s $28,000 price tag. “With our ongoing building of infrastructure, we’ve been able to spread our costs over many, many decades. If I was starting up now, I’m not sure how much we’d have to charge. Our experience gives us a competitive advantage in the pricing model.”