The last time I made a rash career decision on a whim, I ended up halfway through my first marathon crying in a park bathroom.
Four months earlier, I’d agreed to run the Estes Park Marathon — one of the highest-elevation marathons in the country — in solidarity with a younger, fitter colleague who ran for fun in her free time. Worse, I’d agreed to do it all very publicly, updating the entire state of Wyoming on our training progress in my statewide newspaper, the Casper Star-Tribune. (The lengths a features editor will go for content for the summer wellness magazine, am I right?)
The furthest I’d made it in training was 14 miles, barely half of the full 26.2. My partner had sailed through 20. In that bathroom, with 13 more hilly miles to go with a bum knee and under-trained lungs, I wanted to quit.
Now, I’m not saying my online MBA program through the University of Wyoming is like crying my way through a high-elevation marathon. But I’m not NOT saying that, either.
MY SECOND RASH CAREER DECISION
First, some background: In August 2020, I was working in healthcare marketing and communications, a role I had been in for about six years. I spent 12 years before that as a community journalist and newspaper editor, covering everything from education issues to writing long-form human interest stories from across the state of Wyoming. I knew it was time for a step forward, and that an MBA would make me more marketable. But, I always had an excuse to put it off: The money, getting my children through high school and then college, my love of free time that didn’t involve running.
Two things happened almost simultaneously that summer: First Banner Health, a behemoth healthcare system operating 29 hospitals across six states, announced it would purchase the hospital where I worked. The laws of efficiency dictate that whatever can be done by Corporate Headquarters, will be done by Corporate Headquarters. It wasn’t hard to imagine where my position would be headed. Second, the governor announced grants for qualified continuing education candidates in Wyoming schools using CARES Act money authorized in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined with my company’s tuition assistance program, it meant the first semester of my online MBA would be essentially free.
I clicked the “more information” button, and before I really thought about the time and expense required, I was talking to admission heads, filling out my application, and then buying books for my first MBA class.
Once considered the red-headed stepchild of the MBA market, the online MBA is having a moment. In 2019, before the pandemic shook up the market, 50% of online MBA programs reported increased applications. In 2020, that number shot up to 84%. Even top traditional MBA schools are adding online programs, including UC-Berkeley and Ohio State University Fisher College of Business. The University of Wyoming, which has offered an online MBA since the 2009 academic year, has seen enrollments jump from 91 students in 2017 to 143 students now.
“I think, in some respects, remote work and the familiarity with Zoom really opened the eyes of a lot of people, and not just on the student side but on the faculty side as well,” says Dr. Benjamin Cook, UW’s MBA program director. “Online programs are a huge opportunity in the MBA market. For students, the opportunity costs of being out of the workforce are higher now, and they continue to go up. People looking for advancement opportunities in their own space can actually apply what they are learning in real-time through an online MBA.”
The University of Wyoming’s online MBA program is AACSB International accredited, the premier accrediting body for business schools, and has a graduation rate of 75%, Cook says. Sixty-four percent of students are from Wyoming while 34% come from out-of-state.
When I jumped into my MBA journey, somewhat on a whim, that was me. I was very familiar with the UW Brand – Powder River Let ‘er Buck! – and I wear its brown and gold colors with pride. It’s where I earned my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature 20 years earlier. The year I started, my youngest was starting his freshman year there and my oldest was a senior. A full 75% of my household – or 3 out of 4 – were UW students that fall.
Now halfway through the marathon, I mean MBA, I think my experience is not unlike many mid-career professionals looking to advance. Here’s a few of my takeaways.
PROS OF AN ONLINE MBA
ROI: If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my MBA so far, it’s how to calculate a good Return on Investment. While salaries for MBAs from the top B-schools can soar through the roof, so can the costs. Tuition, fees and living expenses can add up to more than $200,000 over two years at the top schools, and that’s on top of at least two years with no income. Compare that to an online MBA where students typically continue working in their current roles. There are also many online programs which are much less expensive than face-to-face programs. Tuition for UW’s online MBA is $10,524 per year for two years, or $21,048. For professionals who aren’t looking for a career pivot and who aren’t looking for jobs in investment banking or consulting, the online version can be a much better deal.
Flexibility: Online MBAs are largely for students like me – working professionals who don’t want to quit their jobs to pursue a more traditional, in-person MBAs full-time at a college campus. Logging into the online modules before and after work and for a couple hours on weekends was the only way I could have made it work without relocating my family.
THE DRAWBACKS OF AN ONLINE MBA
Lack of connection: Writing for Poets&Quants (more on that a little later), I’ve had the privilege of interviewing several highly motivated, accomplished MBAs from Stanford GBS, Berkeley Haas, and other top schools. One thing they always point out is the connection, professional network, and ready access to experts the in-person MBA experience affords. That level of connectivity isn’t really possible in online programs.
University of Wyoming, like other online programs, tries to provide as many opportunities as they can for students to gather or network with professionals and alumni. That includes a trip to the Jackson Leadership Conference in Jackson, Wyo., where MBAs can network with each other and professional leaders in a variety of industries. However, I found it difficult to take advantage of such opportunities because of school, work, and life obligations. And, to be honest, the class-required online discussion boards stopped being effective by, like, the third module of my first class. “Hello Travis. Great post! I agree with your assessment, and here’s a link to further reading on this topic I Googled for this discussion.”
At 5:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning with a full day of work ahead of you, it’s easy to feel like you’re alone on an island.
Feeling stretched too thin: Telling women to lean in, that we can have it all, is almost old hat these days. But, honestly, taking on an online MBA on top of your full time job, family, friends and whatever else one has going means something has to give. And, doing it for two years, including summer classes, has been exhausting. Some weeks, I feel like I’m not doing any particular thing particularly well.
GETTING ACROSS THE FINISH LINE
In August, a year into my hospital’s transition to Banner Health, I got the news I had been expecting: My position, along with many other non-clinical, support functions, would be eliminated at the end of October. I started writing for Poets&Quants on Sept. 20, and I feel exceedingly fortunate to write about the top B-schools, and the most impressive MBA students, in the country. While my career ambitions have changed from when I started my journey, I think my studies help me speak the language.
Now back to that park bathroom: After I stopped hyperventilating, I wiped my eyes, opened the stall door and rejoined the race. I started leapfrogging with a group of walkers who never even broke into a jog. I stumbled at one point and was helped up by a 70-something man who had run marathons in all 50 states for a personal life improvement project. He told me to take it easy, that finishing was the goal, and that there were only 6 miles left. Six MILES!
I finally collapsed across the finish line, well behind my colleague who had had time to shower, grab something to eat and come back to the finish line looking like a fashion model. My tears, then, were of relief and overwhelming pride. My 6-year-old son’s tears were of genuine concern for my life.
Today, I’m not even at the excruciating six-miles-to-go mark of my MBA journey. I’m technically still in that bathroom. Now, my body has trained itself to wake up at 5 a.m. for a couple of hours of study before work — even on weekends, which doesn’t feel so great on a Sunday morning. Some weeks I feel like I’m running downhill, even enjoying the scenery a bit. Others, it seems like the infamous Estes Park climbs will never end. For this marathon, I have no thoughts of giving up.
Crying, though, is another story.