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Online Degrees: Are they the same quality as an on-campus MBA?

Concerned Skeptic 

The UNC@MBA program at Kenan-Flagler seems to be aggressively promoting that it grants the same MBA diploma as the on-campus program. I support distance learning, but I have substantial reservations about granting the same degree. The online program offers a very limited a number of elective courses and group work is altogether different. This is looking a lot like a diploma mill. I’m having serious doubts about attending the school. What are your thoughts?

Ivan

I think your topic of inquiry is legitimate, and that further research (with school representatives, UNC grads, and even employers) may either help ease your concerns, or guide you in a different direction. I do agree with you that online/distance learning is different from the experience of an in-person, campus-based education, and I would add that there are advantages to the online format as well as advantages to the in-person format. Choosing what’s right for you is more important, I think, than trying to figure out what the impact of another degree alternative is, when offered by the same institution.

Whether or not the existence of an online program somehow dilutes the experience, brand, or network is, I think, very hard to judge, and I suspect that the jury will be out for a while on what the overall impact has been of online or blended (online and in-person) learning programs on the MBA marketplace as a whole. What I do know is that Kenan-Flagler is not the only school to offer a part-time degree program choice, or a combination of open enrollment and/or custom executive education programs, and that many/most of these programs incorporate aspects of distributed team project homework and online learning. Whether these additional portfolio offerings by business schools share services — such as career advising and/or employer outreach and job sourcing — is a less critical question, I think, than what the extent of those services are.

In my experience, business schools that branch out to offer additional degree options don’t do so without increasing the size, scope, and specialization of their admissions, career services, and academic program / student life teams, whether or not those administrative roles are housed in the same offices and/or under a same Director. Hence, an online program may not be right for someone who could gain more value out of the full-time, immersive MBA experience, but that doesn’t mean the existence of this option necessarily lessens the full-time experience or that students ability to access resources and services.

For what it’s worth, and despite the fact that all schools are careful to advertise that all students are receiving the “same” MBA degree (meaning same faculty, same content, etc., regardless of delivery format), it remains the case that MBA employers still recognize and care about the difference … knowing, for example, that someone who has dedicated a 100% of their time to pursuing the degree, and has had a chance to participate in all of the informal, peer-learning experiences, close relationships with faculty mentors, and other extracurricular pursuits and projects, etc. has potentially been able to derive greater value and learning from the MBA experience as a whole. (I should note that the opposite can also be true … an employer’s hiring needs for a specific role may favor, for example, a job candidate who has graduated from a one-year specialized Master’s in Finance rather than someone who has completed a two-year, generalist MBA program).

Last, employers also tend to know the admissions hurdles, the GPA/GMAT profiles, and other talent variables that exist for full-time MBA programs versus the other options in the management education taxonomy, and realizing that employers are able to distinguish and put a premium on the different kinds of education, depending on their hiring needs, may also offer some comfort to you with regard to your concern about ‘dilution’.

My recommendation is to take a closer look, and to talk to more people who have had first-hand experiences there.

[Check out America’s Top Online MBA Programs]