An earlier version of this article incorrectly described several aspects of the online MBA program at Liberty University. It has been updated to reflect the school’s views.
Here’s a little-known fact that will likely surprise you: Nearly 32,000 students are now studying for an online MBA degree at just the 25 largest programs in the U.S. Many of these graduate students are watching pre-recorded lectures on their iPhones and laptops, never meeting their fellow students or faculty in the flesh.
In fact, many are studying at schools that lack accreditation by the most important agency that oversees quality business education in the U.S. and the world, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. And the vast majority of these students never had to take a standardized test, either the GMAT or the GRE, to get into these programs.
Of the 18,734 students in the ten largest online MBA programs, an estimated 95% of the students did not submit a GMAT or GRE to apply for admission. Nearly a third of the 25 largest programs admit 90% to 100% of all the applicants. Yet, all of them are ranked by U.S. News in its 2019 ranking of the best online MBA programs published today (Jan. 15), lending in many cases credibility to schools that are little more than diploma mill factories.
THE LARGEST PLAYER IN ONLINE MBAS? LIBERTY UNIVERSITY
Few would be able to guess the five schools with the largest online MBA enrollments. They are Liberty University in Virginia, with nearly 4,000 students; Nova Southeastern University in Florida, with 2,387; Colorado Technical University in Colorado Springs, with 2,341 students, Saint Leo University in Florida with 1,913 students, and American InterContinental University in Illinois, with 1,899 students. Some 11 programs in all reported having more than 1,000 currently enrolled students studying for their MBAs online.
If anything, the list of the largest players goes to show that one online MBA program is hardly equal to another. Consider the school with the largest single enrollment of long-distance MBA students: Liberty University. Founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. in Lynchburg, Va., and now run by his son since 2007, Liberty has become the second-largest provider of online education in the U.S. after only the University of Phoenix, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Christian university’s online MBA program has no regularly scheduled live online classes and no required in-residence sessions. Dave Brat, dean of Liberty’s business school, says that while the online MBA courses do not have compulsory live sessions, “we do have professors that voluntarily offer live sessions in their courses utilizing various technological modalities.”
More than one in four students in Liberty’s online MBA program drop out within the first year, and the school’s three-year graduation rate for the program is just 41%. The program is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, which also passes approval on the for-profit University of Phoenix’s MBA and other Phoenix programs.
Reviews of Liberty’s online MBA program by students and alumni in online program forums are decidedly mixed, ranging from high praise to scathing criticism. “It was a great education,” wrote one online MBA student at Liberty. “I could never have received an MBA while working full-time and raising a 1- and 3-year-old so it was a good fit for me.” Yet another student who says he dropped out of the program at midpoint after compiling a 3.83 GPA was especially unhappy. ”This school is all about the money,” he wrote on the forum…This college forces a secular view wrapped in a false Christian wrapper. The material is completely outdated and extremely overpriced. I was an online student. Forget about staff and faculty being helpful. I felt like I was the instructor.”
Dean Brat says the school doesn’t know the circumstances surrounding why that former student reached those conclusions. “We strive to serve each of our students where they are and meet the needs of each student,” he responded by email. “Further, if one were to evaluate statistics and the likeliness of an individual complaining or praising an organization, people are much more willing to post complaints than they are to issue praises.”
You can get an MBA from Liberty for as little as $20,340 in tuition, excluding course fees and semester technology charges, if you go full-time and take only a dozen, eight-week-long courses without a concentration. For part-timers, the cost is a mere $22,140. If you want a concentration, something that requires three additional courses, a full-time online student would pay $25,425, while a part-timer would pay $27,675. Steep discounts, approaching 50%, are available to military veterans and first responders.
AN ACCEPTANCE RATE AT LIBERTY UNDER CARNEGIE MELLON, UNC, INDIANA & USC?
In common with several of the largest programs, it’s nearly impossible to find out how much an MBA costs at Liberty by visiting its website. A Liberty spokesperson disputes that observation, pointing out that the school’s website has an easy-to-find estimated cost calculator for all its programs.
However, I had to call one of the school’s “enrollment agents” and wait in a long line of held calls to speak to a person. While you are waiting, you’ll hear a series of promotional messages that range from a claim that its tuition is in the bottom third for top online schools or how Liberty is favorably ranked by BestColleges.com, a website that publishes fake rankings with no cited methodologies to generate sales leads for third-tier schools.
Liberty reports a suspiciously low acceptance rate to U.S. News for its online program: 32%. That compares with an admit rate of 54% for Carnegie Mellon’s blended online option, the University of Southern California’s 53%, UNC at Chapel Hill’s 60%, and Indiana Kelley’s 76%, even though Liberty reported that a mere 1% of its latest entrants submitted a GMAT score to get into the school.
AACSB-ACCREDITED ONLINE MBAS UNDER $20,000
Of course, there are several quality players among the top 25, too. They include the two schools whose online MBA programs are ranked first in U.S. News’ 2019 ranking, Indiana University’s Kelley Direct program and Kenan-Flagler’s MBA@UNC offering. Kelley’s total enrollment is now 934, up from 703 last year. UNC’s reported enrollment is just a smidge below Kelley’s at 905.
Consider Indiana University’s Kelley Direct program founded in 1999. Instead of Liberty’s 12 courses, or 35 credit hours, for the general MBA, Kelley requires 18 courses covering 51 credits. There are live classes every week, plus two required in-residence ‘Connect Weeks’ on campus where teams of students work on consulting assignments for companies. There are online clubs around student interests. And there’s also a menu of global and domestic immersions. Sure, it costs more at $67,830, but the school also is accredited by the AACSB and taught by professors who teach in the school’s full-time MBA program.
And there are several AACSB-accredited programs that are under $20,000 a pop. The least expensive online MBA with accreditation that matters is West Texas A&M University’s offering at $16,035, followed by Texas A&M-Commerce with a price tag of $18,510, and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell for $19.650.
Bottom line: If you’re interested in an online MBA program, make sure you take one from a university that is delivering a quality experience worth taking.
(see the following page for our table of the 25 largest online MBA programs by enrollment)