From a standing start in July of 2011, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School has become the largest online MBA player in the market. In the past year alone, student enrollment has jumped by 78% to 1,862 students, from only 1,047 a year earlier.
The school’s MBA@UNC online option has not only surpassed every other online MBA provider in students; Kenan-Flagler now has roughly three times as many online MBA students as it does in its full-time residential program. It has enrolled more than 500 students over the second-largest business school in the market, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, with an enrollment of 1,344 MBA candidates. It’s a far cry from the 19 students who enrolled in UNC’s first online MBA class seven years ago.
What’s behind the explosive growth? For one thing, UNC partnered with an online education company from the start, 2U, which has since signed contracts with other business schools for online MBA programs, including American University, Syracuse University, and Simmons College. A public company, 2U is aggressively recruiting applicants for UNC to leverage the program for its own revenue growth because 2U takes half or more of the tuition generated by the program.
Secondly, the program itself is one of the very best on the market. 2U invested as much as $10 million to bring this MBA experience on the market. And the attractiveness of the university’s brand, one of the best in higher education, has allowed the school and 2U to price the program at a premium. At a total cost of $114,078, MBA@UNC costs more than any other online MBA degree program in the world with the exception of Carnegie Mellon, which features far more extensive face-to-face learning in its offering.
MBA@UNC’s hypergrowth, however, has come at a cost. Kenan-Flagler can no longer claim that its online MBA students — who get the exact same degree as students in the on-campus program — has the same admission standards. Only 15% of the incoming students provided GMAT or GRE scores to get in, making the school the only one of two in U.S. News’ top 10 with fewer than half the incoming students with standardized test scores. The acceptance rate last year jumped 10 points to 55% from 45%, well above the 37% rate of acceptance for the full-time program.
Indeed, that is largely why MBA@UNC doesn’t rank more highly on Poets&Quants’ debut ranking of the best online MBA programs. Kenan-Flagler did no better than 20th place, an abysmal showing given the cost of the program. But the P&Q ranking takes admission standards seriously, placing a third of the weight on them, and Kenan-Flagler also declined to participate in a survey of the program’s alumni. As a result, the school was penalized on this dimension of the ranking as well.
That’s a shame, because this is an otherwise excellent, though overpriced, online MBA option. The required 66 credits can be completed in as few as 18 months or as long as three years. Students generally take two classes per quarter, a schedule that would allow for graduation in 24 months. The school offers eight concentrations, from management consulting to sustainable enterprise. It limits the weekly class sessions to a student-to-teacher ratio of roughly 15 to one. There are quarterly weekend-long immersions in such far-flung locales as Shanghai, Buenos Aires, and Johannesburg, as well as domestic immersions in such major cities as New York, Detroit, San Francisco, and Chicago. And each year, students get two opportunities to go to UNC’s Chapel Hill campus for personal and leadership coaching.
MBA@UNC offers four intakes per year, with new cohorts starting in April, July, October, and January. The school accepts applications on a rolling admissions schedule, so there’s really little need to pay too much attention to the application deadlines, though if you apply early and are admitted you can actually attend a three-day global immersion (or two) before you officially start the program.
Newbies in the program start off with an in-person orientation weekend in Chapel Hill. When the core courses begin, students have weekly live online classes in the typical “Hollywood Squares” format on your computer that are recorded, allowing you to watch and review previous sessions at any time. Students also can use the 2U platform to schedule one-on-one office hours with professors or to host networking events, social groups, or study sessions with classmates.
But most of the coursework is done on your own time. The 2U partnership has allowed faculty to work with a team of content producers to allow lectures and assignments to be completed entirely online. Besides readings and case studies, students also have access to pre-recorded video and online roundtable discussions. There are simulations, group projects, case discussions and negotiations, all online. In addition to the weekly synchronous class sessions, the school expects each student to devote about 10 hours per week per class for study time, preparation and asynchronous sessions.
Students are required to attend two global immersions (and you get to pay your own transportation costs for them), and elective course credit may be earned for two additional immersions during the program.
Throughout the program, students have access to the school’s career development resources such as one-on-one career coaching, resume and interview guidance, personal assessment tools, and new-skills training sessions. They are hosted by executives and alumni from companies in a wide range of industries, allowing employers direct access to MBA@UNC students. After each session, the school then hands out to the company’s recruiters resume books of students. Finally, when it’s time to don cap and gown, UNC also holds graduation ceremonies for its online MBA students on the North Carolina campus in both the fall and the spring.
When it comes to outcomes, the school claims that 76% percent of its online students have received promotions or started new jobs while in the program, and that students average a 29% salary increase over their pre-MBA pay levels by graduation.
All in all, MBA@UNC is clearly one of the better-designed online MBA experiences offered by one of the world’s best academic brands. But students are paying a hefty price for this degree, so the bang-for-the-buck is not nearly as good as you’ll get in some rival programs.