When W. Brooke Elliott got the nod in early February to head the online MBA program at Gies College of Business, some of her colleagues expressed concern that her timing was bad. She was taking over the fastest growing MBA program in the world, a disruptive online option with explosive growth. With a total price of $22,000, Gies’ iMBA went from a standing start four years ago to a total enrollment of nearly 3,000 students.
Her colleagues believed there was just no way that anyone could sustain that kind of growth. And then, within days of her becoming associate dean of Gies’ online initiative on Feb. 3, the coronavirus pandemic hit. As physical classrooms around the world closed and classes went virtual, millions of students experienced lessons via Zoom.
“There was some fear that exposure to remote education would actually harm demand for online programs,” explains Elliott, who had led the school’s accounting department. “Sometimes Zoom classes are not the most positive experiences and it can be hard to keep students engaged.”
‘REMOTE INSTRUCTION AND ONLINE EDUCATION ARE NOT THE SAME THINGS’
That may well be an understatement. The pandemic-caused rush to remote instruction resulted in widespread disappointment among students. More than 75% said they didn’t think they had received a quality learning experience, according to a survey of nearly 1,300 students by the online exam-prep provider OneClass. Many students demanded tuition refunds for courses that they argued were no substitute for the high-touch education they had paid for.
The worry among Elliott’s colleagues was that Zoom classes would make students sour on online education, even though they are no substitute for a well-designed online course. In a genuine online course, a professor can invest as much as a year of time and effort to conceive, design and produce their classes with live and pre-recorded elements, appearances by case study protagonists, and compelling quizzes and team assignments.
“Remote instruction and online education are not the same things,” says Elliott. “People had an opportunity to see that they don’t want to pay what a traditional program costs for a remote instruction experience that wasn’t designed to be online. From the very beginning, we were very thoughtful about the structure of our online courses and how they would engage students. We have a fully enabled e-learning team that our professors collaborate with to build the courses. When people are presented with a choice between a proven program designed to be online or one that is simply remote, they are going to go with the well-designed online degree program.”
‘THERE IS MORE DEMAND FOR ONLINE EDUCATION NOW THAN WE HAVE EVER SEEN’
The upshot? “There is more demand for online education now than we have ever seen,” says W. Brooke Elliott, the associate dean who oversees the program. “We have seen tremendous growth in enrolled students. Right now we are tracking at 2,400 applications for the next cohort which would be a 30% increase year over year.”
She expects the iMBA cohort in August to be the largest single intake ever at more than 1,100 students. For its October cohort, Gies now anticipates 3,000 applicants, a number that would translate into year-over-year growth of 60%. This would translate into total enrollment in the school’s online MBA to between 3,750 and 4,000 this fall from 2,844 in the spring.
So much for bad timing. “The recession has displaced a lot of people and they are considering different educational paths. Many are furloughed and want to build a new skillset. They have some expectation that their furloughs can be lifted and they’ll go back to their jobs. For them, online programs are more attractive than full-time.”
‘CREATING A MINDSET THAT LEGITIMATE ONLINE OFFERINGS SHOULD BECOME PART OF THE CONSIDERATION SET’
Gies is hardly alone. After initially hoping to attract a debut cohort of 250 to 300 students for its new $24,000 online MBA that starts this September, Boston University’s Questrom School of Business now expects to enroll a class of 400 students. That would be 33% to 60% above the expected target goal for the program and 100 more students than the currently enrolled 300 in Questrom’s full-time residential MBA.
Rarely a month goes by when another prominent school jumps atop the online MBA bandwagon. Besides the forthcoming BU offering, Howard University and Wake Forest University announced new online MBA offerings earlier this year. Howard, in fact, enrolled its first online MBA and online Executive MBA programs in May. The relatively new online MBA programs at the University of Michigan and Southern Methodist University have yet to graduate a class. The ecosystem that brings online options more prominence is also solidly in place from specialized online MBA rankings to hefty scholarship support by schools that are scaling their programs.
At Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, an early pioneer in online learning, early-stage applications to its online MBA are up 15% over record application volume in the previous year. The rush to remote instruction is causing more people to consider online programs as a viable option, says Ramesh Venkataraman, chair oF Kelley’s online degree offerings. “It’s creating a mindset that legitimate and high-quality online offerings should become part of the consideration set. Before, some may have still had some hesitancy.”
FLEXIBILITY AND OFTEN PRICE ARE THE PRIMARY APPEALS OF AN ONLINE MBA
A lot of the appeal of an online degree program can be brought down to flexibility and price. Students don’t have to leave their jobs and lose income while they study, and most online options are cheaper. Kelley’s traditional MBA program boasts a sticker price of $111,352 for tuition, fees and books for non-residents. That is 33% more than its online MBA, not accounting for the opportunity costs of having to quit a job to take the residential version.
Yet, even online MBA options that are premium priced are experiencing an uptick in demand. At UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, where the sticker price for its MBA@UNC is a steep $125,589, there are plenty of takers. The school’s forthcoming cohort that will start in July is currently at 105 students, up 33% from 79 a year earlier. Enrollment for the July cohort, moreover, is still not over and the school is continuing to yield students for that intake.
“Many prospective students feel like they want to use this time while they are at home to start the program when they’d typically be traveling for work,” says Kara Adams, associate director of admissions & student recruitment at Kenan-Flagler. “With lots of companies stating that employees will not return until next year, applicants seem to feel this is the best time for them to start and get accustomed to the schedule, work/life balance, and time management.”
‘IN THIS HEALTH CRISIS, ALL OF US REALIZED WE CAN EFFECTIVELY WORK REMOTELY’
Elliott at Gies says there is no evidence that the abrupt move to remote instruction at residential colleges has turned off anyone from an online degree program. “I haven’t seen that,” she insists, “and if you look at our growth in applications that don’t bear it out. Instead, people have been exposed to learning in a remote environment and they realize it can be engaging and high quality. So then they look at leaders in the online space and I believe that is what has driven the demand.
“During the health crisis, all of us have realized we can effectively work remotely. So we have become more open to the idea of engaging this way. People see how it can be personal, too. When you learn online, you are invited into the homes of your students and classmates. You see children in the background, or dogs and cats, books and family photographs on the shelves.”
The recession, which is expected to boost applications to full-time MBA programs after five consecutive years of declining applications, is also fueling further growth in online education. “There is a ton of uncertainly right now,” reasons Elliott. “People don’t like uncertainly and it is really difficult to make commitments in uncertain times.”
The flexibility of a more affordable online MBA, she adds, allows for that uncertainty. “Perhaps you do go back to work if you were furloughed, or something else changes and there are different demands on your time. Perhaps your kids don’t go back to school in the fall because of COVID. You have the flexibility to take fewer courses or skip a term. You are not forced down the same path as everyone else in a residential program that requires a two-year commitment. You can take a break if things get busy and get right back on track.”
That’s why she doesn’t think her timing was bad at all. If anything, the affordability, flexibility, and quality of online MBA programs at top schools is not only here to stay; it’s here to flourish.