Online MBAs That Pass (And Flunk) U.S. News’ Engagement Test

Not all online MBA programs are created equal. They come at different price points from schools with all kinds of reputations. Some allow for in-residence sessions and live weekly Internet classes. Others are little more than video lessons with discussion boards.

But a key element of a quality program is student engagement and how accessible faculty are to those long distance students. As part of its online MBA ranking, U.S. News puts the most emphasis on what it called “engagement,” even ranking the programs numerically by that favor. Some 30% of the ranking’s methodology–more than any other category–is devoted to this measurement alone, though it is unclear how legitimate this single metric might be.

Users of the U.S. News ranking, for example, should know that the engagement ranking is not the result of surveys to students or graduates who would frankly be in the best position to rate engagement. The most substantive assessment from graduates of online MBA programs is done by Poets&Quants which surveyed 5,880 alums and received responses from 1,143 graduates last year (see How Students Rate Their Online MBA Experience). That data is gathered for P&Q‘s annual ranking of the best online MBA programs in the world.


Instead, the data U.S. News leverages for engagement is based on school-supplied information from 324 online MBA programs. U.S. News judges “engagement” by mashing together a variety of statistics, from one-year student retention rates and the percentage of students who graduate within three years to class size (programs with 20 or fewer students in a class get the most credit) and best practices, an “everything but the kitchen sink” category that would include accreditation and instructor office hours.

Who passes and who flunks the engagement test? Two of the most expensive online MBA programs top the list. In first place on the engagement ranking is Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at a price tag of $125,589. Right behind the program, dubbed MBA@UNC, is Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business whose blended three-year MBA program costs $141,320.

Rounding out the top five on the engagement ranking are the University of West Georgia, Rochester Institute of Technology, with James Madison University, William & Mary, and West Chester University in a three-way tie for fifth place. The $22,315 Georgia WebMBA program is composed of just 10 courses taken over five semesters with a two-day mandatory orientation held in Atlanta. It’s a no-frills program from a second-tier business school but it can boast a No. 3 engagement rank which vastly exceeds its overall 55th place online MBA ranking in U.S. News.


West Georgia’s high engagement ranking should give considerable pause about the U.S. News method of evaluating engagement. After all, there are many other online MBA programs from business schools with far better reputations that somehow rank below it, including Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business (see table below). IU’s Kelley Direct program was named the MBA Program of the Year by Poets&Quants. Some other business schools, most notably the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois, don’t participate in rankings so its highly touted $22,000 iMBA experience isn’t on the list.

So applicants should treat the U.S. News ranking with a big grain of salt. It’s betting to parse a ranking, including Poets&Quants’ annual list, for the things that matter most to the individual making the decision to attend an online MBA. “We always tell our prospective students to consider rankings in conjunction with their own priorities and needs,” says Will Geoghegan, chair of Kelley Direct MBA. “A ranking may or may not adequately capture the complex nuances of the online MBA experience. Thus, if a prospective student can articulate what their goals and priorities are for an online MBA program, our staff can better guide them on how Kelley Direct may or may not fit.

“Students solely looking at rankings data may want, but miss, something like a dedicated career coach familiar with the needs of experienced professionals. Or they may be looking for a larger pool of course offerings such as our majors and specializations. Or they may not realize the value of a program that incorporates in-residence experiences which integrate academics and networking. In summary, a decision such as this warrants an in-depth evaluation of a program they are considering, and that takes time and attention.  I would strongly recommend prospective students talk to each program intensively to gather the appropriate context and find a program that is the best fit for their goals.”

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