To get its inaugural class of online MBA students started next week, Boston University’s Questrom School of Business battled through a host of COVID disruptions that ranged from university budget cuts and hiring freezes and a key instructional designer coming down with coronavirus to a complete halt on the construction of its video studios and the loss of many university IT resources.
Yet, BU managed to overcome the unexpected obstacles to enroll the first class of 401 online MBA candidates, double its initial expectations of 200 students for its $24,000 virtual MBA. When they begin coursework on Aug. 2 in what is called “Mod Zero,” all the classes have been reimagined and completed with the exception of the ending capstone. Already, Questrom has 100 students confirmed for the program’s second cohort that starts in January.
“We’ve had challenges that impacted production and space, but we worked through all of that,” says Questrom Dean Susan Fournier. “We doubled our goals in admission and the quality of the students was irresistible, really amazing. With everything else going on, it has just turned into a very manageable project. Things are going great.”
‘THESE ARE OLDER LEARNERS WHO WANT A PROGRAM THAT IS PEER-DRIVEN AND FOCUSED ON PROBLEM-SOLVING’
All told, the new online MBA program attracted 850 candidates to its first cohort, allowing the school to accept 53% of its applicant pool. The average age of the first group of students is 37 with 12 years of work experience. “These are people who live in Omaha, have worked in one company, and don’t want to quit their jobs to get an MBA,” says JP Matychak, associate dean for strategic initiatives. “These are the unicorns, and there are a lot of them, fortunately. They are older learners who want a program that is peer-driven and focused on business problem-solving. Once you say you don’t have to move to Boston and pay a lot of money for the degree, it just opens the world up.” In fact, nearly a third of the debut cohort lives outside the U.S.
That has to be something of a relief because Questrom is a late entry into an already cluttered online MBA market with more than 300 options in the U.S. alone and the early quality leaders clearly identified in numerous rankings. At a time when schools are closing their full-time MBA programs and enrollment has been declining, the online option has experienced explosive growth. The fastest-growing MBA program in the past five years is also another online play: the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business $22,000 iMBA which will enroll between 3,750 and 4,000.graduate this fall. Boston University is really the second major competitor to arrive with a big university brand and a disruptive price.
What’s more, the early evidence is that the highly affordable online MBA has not cannibalized BU’s more expensive part-time or full-time MBA programs. “We tried to estimate our exposure to all kinds of risks and that was the big one because you are adding a price element to a price-sensitive audience,” adds Dean Fournier. “At this moment, we have only seen eight students who were first interested in our part-time MBA or who recently started in that program opt for online out of 800. The melt is just not an issue. The theory of market differentiation is holding. They are just very different people.”
In Questrom’s full-time MBA program, Fournier was anticipating an entering class of about 120 students. “We already have 170 deposits for the full-time program,” she says. “We are almost 50% over target. We don’t know the final enrollment numbers yet because the details about the fall continue to be revealed but right now we are preparing and planning for an additional cohort of full-time MBAs.”
COVID DISRUPTIONS DIDN’T MAKE THE LAUNCH EASY
Getting the new online program up and running during the pandemic outbreak turned out to be a bigger challenge than recruiting students for it. On March 12, as coronavirus cases began to climb, the university abruptly shifted to remote instruction. “Our faculty were involved in teaching regular courses and then had to flip their classes in a week,” says Paul Carlile, senior associate dean for online learning. “We knew this would be a hard push from the beginning but COVID had become the biggest challenge. It has added a lot of overhead and extra work. We had to operate the way our students operate so all of our planning meetings went to Zoom and we shut down.”
That meant that all construction on the group’s video studios came to a halt. The school converted a student dining room into a temporary studio instead. The university’s IT group was stretched thin by having to focus on the overnight switch to virtual teaching for 6,000 faculty members and 40,000 students. So the business school had to lean more heavily on its own IT group.
Then, one of the online team’s key instructional designers tested positive for coronavirus. “That hurt us from a personnel point of view and that happened early on and the person was out for seven weeks,” adds Carlile. “It will not surprise anyone to know that instructional designers are now in a buyer’s market. COVID meant that faculty were also having to teach remotely when they should have been scripting the new courses. But at the same time, the experience of flipping a classroom gives you a sense of how different this has to be. Despite the stress, people have really pulled together.”