Ten years ago, the University of North Dakota’s ambitions expanded. The school’s online MBA program went from a distance learning module delivered via two remote locations in the western part of the state to a modern, synchronous program using Adobe Connect, and thus available to the world. Since then, changes have occurred, of course, but the basic framework has remained the same: on-campus students and distance learners can work together, guided by top faculty, using elite materials to the benefit of all.
Michelle Garske has been there from the beginning, and even before. The director of graduate programs and accreditation came to Grand Forks to join the UND College of Business & Public Administration 12 years ago in January, giving her a front-row seat to UND’s every evolution — and revolution — in the online MBA space.
“In ’07-’08, we of course wanted to expand and open up to people beyond our two remote locations, and that’s when we moved into the online world by offering courses in Adobe Connect, so we were kind of movers back then in that marketplace,” Garske tells Poets&Quants. “We have been offering classes in a synchronous fashion ever since.
“What we’re doing is offering the program synchronously for the campus students to come to the classroom one night per week from 7-10, and then the distance students log in at the same time and the faculty members work with both audiences simultaneously. It’s working well — they have the technology down pretty well, and we feel like we gain a lot from having the two groups of students work together. For our local students, it opens up a tremendous diversity, and for the distance students, they’re working with peers all over the country, so they really enjoy that as well.”
ONLINE MBA GROWS TO ALMOST 100 STUDENTS
They’re doing something right in Grand Forks, currently ranked No. 29 by U.S. News & World Report, and Garske knows precisely what it is. After the online MBA population grew in the fall of 2017 to 98 from 77 a year before, she points to two causes: a massive curriculum change implemented this fall, and the reduction of prerequisites from 36 hours of undergrad business classes to four basic modules — accounting, finance, economics, and statistics — that take about 20 hours to complete. The result has been renewed interest in the online MBA from the university’s engineering and aerospace students, and a bump in the number of military students studying from overseas.
“We reduced our barriers for entry a lot by reducing prerequisites,” Garske says. “The engineers and aerospace students weren’t wanting to complete our 36 hours of undergrad business prerequisites — you can imagine why — so we just really took a long look at the curriculum over the last couple years.”
The four modules are “nuts and bolts stuff,” she says, but that doesn’t mean getting into UND’s program is a cakewalk. Far from it. Prospective MBAs still must pass an exam with a score of 80% or better — and they still must take the GMAT or GRE. “We didn’t want to get rid of the GMAT,” Garske says. “Some students consider that a barrier, but we think it’s a really good predictor of success — especially the quant. We’re not interested in getting rid of that, so we will keep that.”
CHANGES ‘OVERWHELMINGLY POPULAR WITH STUDENTS’
The curriculum changes, meanwhile, represent perhaps the biggest overhaul in UND business education history. Two years in the making, they moved the online MBA from a 34-credit program to 43-credit program; students who take 6 credits per semester can expect to graduate in about two years. The courses themselves mirror those offered on campus: same curricula, similar lectures, comparable deadlines for assignments and exams. And the same transcript and diploma.
“We added nine credits and thought, ‘Let’s see what that does,’” Garske says. “You typically find when you look at the market that either programs have 30-35 credits plus a whole bunch of pre-recs, which is where we were, or you find programs that have 55-60 credits and they don’t have a lot of pre-recs but they’re full-time programs that are online. And we thought, ‘We’re kind of in the middle, so let’s have a program that looks somewhere in the middle.’ And that’s how we came up with our 43 credits and our four modules for pre-recs. It’s been overwhelmingly popular with students, and I think that’s how we can explain our once again increased enrollment this fall.”
UND offers courses three terms out of the year, and has three intakes. Among the courses UND offers online: Econometrics, Advanced Managerial Theory, Strategic Market Planning, Managerial Finance, and Business Intelligence, a data analytics course. Most MBAs from UND go on to professional management careers, especially in business and financial operations. Most remain in North Dakota or work in neighboring Minnesota, and according to 2015 figures from the school, most can expect to double their pre-MBA salaries to about $80,000.
SHOWING ‘A WILLINGNESS TO INVEST IN YOURSELF’
Shauna Vistad graduated from the UND program in 2014, before the big curriculum changes, but she praises the program for its impact on her career. Currently the Special Investigations Unit and Provider Audit, Compliance, Audit, & Corporate Ethics manager for Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, Vistad tells Poets&Quants that her BS in criminal justice wasn’t quite enough to advance her career.
“I did some research online and found that I could do the MBA program through UND all online, which fit with my very busy lifestyle, so I pursued the program,” she says. “As a mom with a full-time job, I needed the flexibility.”
In her job, she adds, “having an understanding of business has helped me to better structure and lead the department and present information to my executive leaders in a way that helps them to better understand how our objectives align with the overall objectives of the business. I would absolutely recommend the program to anyone looking to further their education. The flexibility is great, the teachers are easy to work with, and furthering your education shows your willingness to invest in yourself.”