By Ben Feuer. Photo by Miniyo73.

Six years ago, we wouldn't be having this conversation. That is the first, and in many ways, the most important, thing to remember about Online MBAs. They are new. Brand new, really. And they have to be approached the same way we approach any new product, namely, with a blend of optimism and caution. We here at Forster-Thomas have seen quite a few clients evaluate or choose online, executive and part-time MBA options, and we have helped people make those decisions. As such, we felt it was high time someone helped people understand the pros and cons of online MBAs. Hence, this article.

THE CONS

We're going to address these first, and make no mistake, they're substantial.

JOB PLACEMENT IS A CHALLENGE. Even the most optimistic numbers show 20% lower success rates for top online MBAs vs their equivalent 2-year programs. In other words, Kenan-Flagler 2-year MBA places 20% more students in jobs than Kenan-Flagler Online. And that's considering only the sheer number of placements, not factoring in the quality of those jobs, industry or salary. There are a couple of reasons for this. One of the big ones is that online MBA students have less access to organic networking and traditional recruiting than their 2-year peers. Another reason is the cohort of the online students themselves -- they tend to be older, and from non-traditional backgrounds, which disadvantages them versus pliable youngsters. Finally, recruiters (and the machines that do much of their work for them) are still leery of online degrees -- the fact that low-quality product was the first to hit the market negatively impacted first impressions of the degree, and it's taking time for employers to warm up to the idea of learning leadership by yourself in your bedroom. 

THE COST IS HIGH, CONSIDERING. You might assume that cost would be a strength of the online MBA, but in fact, schools are charging almost as much (or in some cases, exactly as much) for the online degree as for the 2-year degree. You're taking the same number of classes with the same professors, and earning the same degree at the end, so it's not completely unjustified. Nevertheless, it's definitely a frustrating fact.

INTERNSHIPS ARE TRICKY. On-campus recruiting and internships are much diminished in online MBAs. Schools are working to counter this as best they can, but it will be years (probably many years) before career-shifters are well-served by the online option.

So why would you do an online MBA? Well, there are several important pro's -- 

THE PROS

THE PROFESSORS (AND STUDENTS) ARE TOP-NOTCH. The myth that an online MBA is isolating is just not true. The top programs go to great lengths to make sure students are speaking with professors and each other at least once a week. Courses, classwork and professors are the same online as they are at the brick-and-mortar equivalents. As long as you put in the work, you'll be able to pass the same tests and achieve the same professional results as any other MBA student.

FLEXIBILITY IS UNMATCHED. A top-20 MBA (or an M7 MBA, if you're that kind of elitist) remains the Lamborghini of degrees. But not everybody is equipped to drive one, and not everybody needs one. And for some people, the sacrifices involved in getting one aren't worth the trade-off.

Consider the following -- you may not be one of the lucky few who's able to take time off your job AND go into mountains of debt -- and even if you are, and even if you do get that promotion or career change you're angling for, that kind of money may take 5-10 years to earn back, making the ROI less attractive at 2-year programs.

Some students aren't able to travel the long distances required to learn at a top institution. Family or other life circumstances hold them back. Their options are to go with a potentially sketchy local or community college degree, or an online MBA. The online may well be the better choice of those two.

You may be in an age range MBA programs don't target, or your career experience may not be in line with your academic ability, and therefore you can't get accepted to a program that's rigorous enough to challenge you (and provide you with all that fantastic on-campus recruiting so many crave). Again, that makes the online more attractive.

WHO IS IT GOOD FOR?

It's a mistake to think of the online MBA as an 'alternative', or worse still, a 'replacement' for the traditional 2-year. It isn't now, and it may not be for a long time. But executive MBAs, part-time MBAs, night-weekend MBAs and Mini-MBAs may indeed be threatened, and ultimately subsumed by this newcomer. 

The best thing about the online MBA is that you don't have to give up your job, move or commute. Therefore, right now it's best for people who are happy with their current situation but want to move up the ladder. If you are promoted internally while earning that degree, as many online MBA students are, your next lateral move won't be concerned with how you earned your MBA, simply that you have it. After all, the best online MBAs make no distinction as to where or how the degree was earned. A Kenan-Flagler MBA is a Kenan-Flagler MBA. 

It's also a great option for people who are, for whatever reason, outside the realistic target of the top 20 MBA programs. You get a much more valuable degree at a lower cost, a better education, and better networking options, assuming you are able to apply yourself and work well in an online learning environment, and assuming you are pro-active and eager to network and seek opportunities in your area. 

It's probably not the right choice for emigres, career shifters, or people entering highly selective hiring processes -- yet. But give it time. As certifications and skill tests grow in popularity, employers will have a more objective way to judge achievement than a name on the diploma -- and at that point, it's anybody's party.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BEST ONLINE MBAs RIGHT NOW?

There are a couple of ways to look at this question. Since most people considering an online MBA are also considering 2-year and other options, we feel that at this time, students' best bet is to go for a degree that is viewed as similarly as possible to the 2-year equivalent, at schools with a reputation for high quality academics. As such, our top choices as of this writing are --



HOW TO GET IN

Top online MBAs are extremely selective, with between 25 and 45 percent acceptance rates. Those numbers are in line with many excellent non M7 programs, such as Yale SOM and Duke Fuqua. And as employers grow to accept the degree, expect those numbers to plummet. The relative ease of access (and perceived ease of earning) an online MBA makes them, potentially, much more popular than their brick and mortar counterparts.  

So how can you make yourself appealing? All the typical rules of the MBA game apply (we wrote a whole book about it!), but the online degree does a few tweaks and twists. Students should be prepared to explain why the online MBA specifically is right for them, and should use their storytelling materials to highlight why they will be active and engaged participants in this somewhat unusual learning environment, and how they will be great ambassadors for the school in the future. Online MBAs are going to be very concerned with their reputations for the foreseeable future, so every student they graduate has the potential to put them on the map. You want to be that student for them.

Do you have questions about your particular situation?  Call us, we'll be happy to help.

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New schools are up on the Forster-Thomas website.  Check them out at the following links!

CMU Tepper (Carnegie Mellon)

LBS (London)

Cornell Johnson

UCLA Anderson