One of the major drawbacks of online MBA programs is how hard it is to make deep connections with fellow classmates and faculty via a computer screen. That, in turn, impacts the value of the school’s alumni network in helping you throughout your professional life. Plus, you typically miss out on a lot of enticing features that are a core part of a quality residential MBA experience, from getting involved in student-run clubs and organizations to engaging in consulting projects with companies and nonprofits.
Many are willing to make those sacrifices in exchange for the flexibility online MBA programs offer. After all, you can keep your job, apply what you learn at work in real time, and still earn the degree without giving up a year or two of income.
Increasingly, however, you don’t have to make those tradeoffs. You can have your proverbial cake and eat it, too. That’s certainly the case with Indiana University’s Kelley Direct online option. In recent years, the Kelley School of Business has been adding the kinds of experiences that until recently had only been available to MBA students who invested two years in a full-time residential program.
- Regular face-to-face meetings with students and faculty? Check.
- Every class is taught by tenure-track faculty who also teach in the full-time MBA program? Check.
- Immersion courses in different cities with consulting projects? Check.
- International study trips? Check.
- The option to concentrate or “major” in a desired field? Check.
- Student clubs and organizations? Check.
- Full access to one of the best career development programs in management education? Check.
- A valuable alumni network — nourished with school-funded dinners twice a year in more than 25 cities — with access to career coaches? Check.
And all of this is in an online MBA program that makes it more of a transformative experience. It’s why Kelley Direct has ranked second and third by Poets&Quants in having the best online MBA program in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Graduate satisfaction with the Kelley program — as measured by our surveys to alumni — is among the highest of an online educational experience.
“The MBA is as much about the education as it is about the experience,” explains Ramesh Venkataraman, chair of Kelley Direct. “As people look at an online MBA, the biggest mistake they can make is to focus just on the education and the classes. The transformation into a full-fledged MBA graduate happens in the experience that accompanies the education.”
Launched in 1999, long before many other schools got into long distance learning, the $67,830 online MBA has nearly 4,000 alumni. It has evolved into an MBA program that has almost all of the frills of Kelley’s on-campus offering. Each student meets with an academic mentor at regular intervals throughout the program and has full access to the school’s well-known professional development offering. Only 40% of the coursework is asynchronous, with the remaining 60% delivered in live weekly classes and a pair of one-week residencies on the university’s Bloomington campus.
“The residential components allow students to create a bond with their fellow classmates in a face-to-face setting, and it also allows us to develop some of the soft skills and presentation skills that are harder to deliver online,” adds Venkataraman, who says he actually delivers as much or more feedback to his online MBAs than he had given his on-campus students.
But the face-to-face sessions don’t end there. The program boasts optional three-credit immersion courses with a focus on a specific career path, such as advertising, business analytics, or consulting. At least one immersion course, with weekend residencies in New York, Chicago, Silicon Valley, or Cincinnati, is available every term. Then there is the portfolio of international courses called AGILE for Accelerating Global Immersion Leadership Education, which place students in teams for consulting projects with small businesses all over the world.
At Kelley, you just don’t pack your bags and go abroad. The trips are the culmination of several weeks of country-specific online content that explores the cultural, political, and economic forces on the country’s businesses. While in-country under the guidance of a Kelley professor, students either make a number of visits to a wide range of companies or they complete a week-long consulting project with a local small business. Kelley, moreover, offers an AGILE course every single term.
Students can opt to take one of seven concentrations, ranging from business analytics to technology management. Not a single class in the program is taught by faculty who don’t teach in other programs at the school. Kelley Direct boasts nine student clubs and organizations exclusively for its online students. The clubs, often organized around career paths, bring in outside speakers and allow for deeper networking. In fact, the online student leadership association hosts global connect nights in more than 25 cities worldwide at least twice a year so students can connect in person with each other.
The program starts with a required on-campus program called Kelley Connect Week, where students tackle a live business case focusing on a smaller entrepreneurial enterprise, with student teams presenting their analysis and recommendations to the business owners at the end of the week. Then students jump into their regular coursework. Every course is delivered in 12-week quarters, with the chance to interact live with a faculty member and classmates on a given night every week. The school has “flipped the classroom,” so before each live session, you would have watched some video lectures or done your assigned readings to prep for class. In fact, every week or two, you’ll have an assignment for class so that it doesn’t feel that much different than what you would experience in an actual classroom. The live weekly sessions are also recorded so students can re-watch a class or watch one they were unable to attend live.
Midway through the program, students return to Bloomington to complete a second required week-long residency. This time, students do another live business case on a large company facing a global challenge that ends with yet another presentation before company executives. Both on-campus cases for the residencies are new to each class and written by Kelley faculty — further evidence that the school is as committed to the online program as they are to any other.
In a typical year, the school will bring into its online experience about 300 students. The average age hovers around 31, though the range varies between 23 and 58. It’s a bit more work experience than you would see in a full-time MBA program. And you can expect your classmates to be top-notch, because Kelley boasts fairly rigorous admission standards.
Most online business programs wait for students to approach them for career advice and then only provide it reluctantly. But in 2016 Kelley added a version of its highly popular Me Inc. career development program for full-time MBA students to its online student population, doubling the staff resources for academic advising and coaching. Dubbed Propel, it features a step-by-step interaction that begins with admission and continues throughout students’ experience in the program. Overall, the school is promising a minimum of five one-on-one sessions with each student.
In the very first academic term, students are challenged to prepare a professional development plan. Learning expectations are applied and include a review of the plan of study and coaching of a student’s work/life balance. An academic adviser helps to identify challenges and the strategies to help them meet their professional objectives. A career coach provides guidance on how to best use resources for networking with companies and alumni.
This continues into the second year of the program, when academic advisers may suggest opportunities for a dual degree or experiential learning. The final stage of Propel, right before graduation, provides coaching on being an effective Kelley alum. A final review of the professional development plan, goals and an action plan is part of an exit interview.
That devotion to one’s personal growth and career is something you would typically only get in a two-year MBA experience at a highly ranked business school. No wonder Kelley grads rate the school highly on every dimension. The Kelley Direct experience is as close as you’ll come to being in a full-time MBA program, without having to quit your job and be on campus for two years.