THE CHALLENGE: TO KEEP THE BEST OF A BOUTIQUE MBA MODEL
According to Sevilla, the program’s success is rooted in its earliest decisions. Launched in 1999, Hough was among the first ‘name’ schools to offer an accredited online MBA. Back then, the school already ran popular executive and professional MBA programs, which were marked by an immersive experience and deep student connection. For Sevilla (who joined in late 1998 as the associate director in career services), the challenge was how to translate this boutique model, “to keep the best of what we already have” on a different platform.
To start, Hough focused on getting key senior faculty excited and onboard early, “[which] was not an easy feat,” Sevilla concedes. Along with gaining faculty buy-in, the school emphasized student quality. “We had to make sure the metrics we use to define who deserves to be an MBA student in the program would not change. If anything, [going online] would allow us to be more selective, given it was an expanded pool.” In addition, the program committed to implementing the best technology – and training faculty on how to use it. “We held their hands through the process,” Sevilla remembers, “making it a very custom and personal translation, as opposed to a ‘Hey, this is what you’re going to do’ [approach].”
Most important, the program stressed a culture of student connection in every decision. “We use the term “family” around here a lot,” Sevilla points out. “[Online students aren’t] some auxiliary arm taught in the cloak of darkness…From the beginning, it was mission critical for us to require [on-site] residencies each semester…We didn’t feel we could just bring [students] in at the beginning, give them a pep talk, and then say ‘see you in two years’ at graduation and that would be a viable MBA experience. Making a commitment to community and showing how important they were to us was an early decision we made.”
AT FIRST, SOME THOUGHT ITS ONLINE OFFERING WAS A ‘FLY-BY-NIGHT OPERATION’
Early on, Hough’s online MBA program attracted tech-savvy first adopters. While such students still thrive in the program, the expectations have increased over time. Aside from “intellectual horsepower,” the school heavily weighs professional work experience, since the quality of student discussions “are so closely tied into what someone has done,” Sevilla says. Cultural fit is another factor. “[These students] are entering a community-based, collaborative environment…it won’t work if [they] just want the content and [to] stay to themselves.”
Over the past 15 years, the perception of an online MBA has also shifted, says Sevilla. In 1999, students (and employers) wondered if the program was a fly-by-night operation. Now, alerts Sevilla, it is viewed as the equal of the brick-and-mortar program. “The online MBA is the same quality experience, just executed in a different way. Everyone is earning the same degree – There is no asterisk on the diploma when they get it. That’s a firm commitment I make to our alumni and students.”
In fact, the program’s rigor is part of the attraction says Tim Megginson, a marketing director at the Dollywood Company. A 2012 graduate, Megginson initially looked at programs where he could just go deeper into marketing. But he is grateful to have chosen Hough. “It took me out of my comfort zone…[and] really opened up my eyes to the broader business as a whole. I have a lot better perspective of how all the pieces fit together.”