MBA@UNC: Kenan-Flagler’s Online MBA Has Proven The Early Skeptics Wrong


MBA@UNC students during one of their on-campus residencies

“The way you show up matters to the people you work with. The choices you make can get you into stress. When you are in fear, uncertainty or stress, it’s difficult to do things well. This is not about being positive and optimistic. It’s about being authentic.”

The speaker is not a psychologist. It’s a business professor, in this case, it’s Michael Christian, a professor of organizational behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School.

On a chilly winter morning in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, some 60 students are gathered in a conference room around a host of round cloth-covered tables. Christian’s class is unique and innovative: “Energy Crafting For Resilience.”

“When we’re under stress, we narrow our attention on what is hurting us and causing stress,” he tells the class. ” We lose our peripheral vision. It also impacts our behaviors as leaders. You fixate on a singular approach to a problem. People tend to ask for help less and they tend to return to old habits.”


The goal of this nearly four-hour class, filled with exercises and challenges, is to make students feel comfortably aware of stress and its impact on their behaviors. They seem to savor what Christian has to say as much as his point of view.

In the class are online students enrolled in Kenan-Flagler’s MBA@UNC program, the most successful graduate program in business ever created by the school.  They are attending one of four quarterly Summits, a pair in Chapel Hill and two abroad during the course of their online MBA program. It’s an important feature of the program and a drawing card for many of the students here.

Kenan-Flagler became the highest-ranked business school in the U.S. to offer an online MBA program back in 2011. It entered the market through a partnership with 2U, a now publicly traded online education company that takes half of the revenue of the Kenan-Flagler program. At the time, many were skeptical of online education. There were no rankings until U.S. News began its annual lists of the pecking order of online MBA programs a year later. Full-time MBA students and some alumni worried that online courses would ruin the school’s reputation. Some of the faculty agreed.


When Doug Shackelford, an associate dean who led the online launch and would later become dean, walked into his tax course shortly after the announcement, he found all of his students wearing pink, oversized shirts imprinted with “Get Your MBA in Your PJs.” Their arms were crossed, their mouths shut tight in silent protest. Shackelford famously told then-Dean Jim Dean that going online was such a big bet that either Dean would be a hero for doing it or burned in effigy on campus if it failed.

The inaugural class for the July 2011 launch totaled a mere 19 students. Today, few would question that early decision to enter the market. In little more than three years, online MBA enrollment surpassed that of the school’s full-time MBA. Ever since the 2014-2015 academic year, MBA@UNC has exceeded enrollment in the full-time MBA program. reaching a peak of 501 new students in the midst of the pandemic.  So far, the online MBA program boasts 3,246 graduates and currently enrolls 300 students a year compared to the 253 full-timers who started last fall.

The program consistently ranks among the best online MBA degree options in the world by Poets&Quants and U.S. News & World Report. In P&Q’s latest ranking, MBA@UNC placed seventh best. On the U.S. News’ list, Kenan-Flagler shared top honors with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. No less important, however, online degree programs have become an essential part of the portfolio for Kenan-Flagler and many other business schools as interest in full-time, residential MBA programs has diminished.


“The ROI of stepping out of the labor market during an economic expansion is too costly for many,” explains Brad Staats, senior associate dean for strategy and academics at Kenan-Flagler. “The market has changed dramatically. There is less demand for a full-time MBA.”

Since Kenan-Flagler’s online launch more than a dozen years ago, however, the market for online MBA programs has exploded. In the inaugural U.S. News ranking of online MBAs in 2012, some 164 U.S. programs were listed alphabetically. This year, 356 schools told the ranking organization that they would be offering online MBAs.  And that list does not include such disruptively-priced quality options at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business or Boston University’s Questrom School of Business which both offer online MBAs that cost $25,000 or less.

“The challenge is that there are so many choices,” says Staats. ” It’s a lot different than when we entered the market. Today you have many different price points and program formats. That competition leads to an open question about what is steady state in an online world.”



MBA@UNC Associate Dean Sriram Venkataraman

Kenan-Flagler’s MBA@UNC program is priced at a hefty $125,589, the third highest-priced online MBA on the market. That price point requires Kenan-Flagler to create more distinctive differentiation besides maintaining a high level of quality and innovation. Besides the weekly live classes with fewer than 20 students, there’s an in-person orientation weekend on campus, quarterly, in-person immersive experiences in Chapel Hill as well as such international locales as Argentina and Poland, six concentrations that range from data analytics and decision-making to strategy and consulting, and the promise of lifelong career services and support, including some one-on-one career coaching. Online MBA students also are allowed to take electives in the full-time, evening and weekend MBA programs and soon will have that option in Kenan-Flagler’s relatively new Charlotte MBA program.

About 20% of the school’s online students want to do a career pivot to a new industry. “We have a dedicated career staff and students have unlimited access to coaching,” says Matt Hente, director of the online MBA. “Our career staff work with students throughout the program to figure out what is next. We maintain a career database with interview notes and compensation data. They have access to career fairs and webinars from companies.”

“We are a high-touch program,” explains Sriram Venkataraman, associate dean of MBA@UNC. “We are big but feel small. Students walk into their sections and we have always chosen to keep our class sections small. We have 18 students in all of the core classes for our live synchronous weekly classes. And for the electives, it is even smaller. Students love that because they tend to get personal attention from faculty members. Many of the students keep in touch with us years after they graduate. We are a school that sees every student as a special person who carves his or her own way to success. We are here to cheer them on.”

In MBA@UNC, all the asynchronous sessions–via video– are taught by residential faculty. Slightly more than half the live sessions–which occur weekly or fortnightly–are taught by the school’s professors. “We hire the best in class,” says Venkataraman. “We do that to keep the class size small.”

“The fundamentals of what we strive for has not changed,” adds Venkataraman. “It’s going to be who we are whether we have zero competition or 500 competitors. The need is to respond to marketplace changes to stay ahead of the competition. Competition is good for us. We strive in the face of competition to do even better. Complacency is not part of our dictionary. We are never going to rest on our past. There are many me-too offerings that have learned a lot from us.”

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