Those interested in pursuing an M.B.A. have a lot of options: full-time or part-time programs, abbreviated courses designed specifically for executives, and joint degrees with other academic disciplines, to name a few. In the past decade, another option has emerged and continues to gain popularity: online M.B.A. degrees.
While the quality of online M.B.A. degrees left much to be desired during their early days, their attributes have steadily improved over the past few years, as have their pedigrees. The University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School made headlines recently when it announced the launch of a two-year online M.B.A. program. Other highly ranked programs allowing students to complete degrees online include Indiana University's Kelley School of Business and Spain's IE Business School. As the demand continues to grow for such programs, it's possible to imagine future M.B.A. students obtaining Harvard Business School degrees without once setting foot in Cambridge.
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According to the website Poets and Quants, which recently ran a feature on the state of online M.B.A. programs, approximately 11,000 students are currently pursuing online M.B.A. degrees at some 90 institutions accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. It's easy to understand the appeal of these programs. Many M.B.A. seekers have jobs they don't want to leave or families they don't want to uproot; to them, completing an online program is more appealing than moving to a new city to pursue a full-time two year degree. Given the lower cost of online degrees, the current economy has further heightened the appeal of online M.B.A. programs.
Yet students pursuing their degrees online inevitably give up many benefits offered by full-time programs. While technology allows online students to easily communicate with their professors and even carry on discussions with their fellow learners, they don't participate in campus clubs and interact with their cohorts during study sessions and off-campus activities, which are big parts of the b-school experience. Opportunities for internships and recruiting are, by and large, far less prominent for the online student. Many of them also face the added stress of completing challenging course material while trying to maintain their career at the same time, something full-time M.B.A.s usually don't have to worry about.
[See our complete rankings of Best Online M.B.A. Programs.]
Clearly, however, the online degree has become a viable option. If you decide that the online M.B.A. experience is right for you, there are a couple of things you should look for in a program. Ideally, choose one that is accredited by the aforementioned Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which also accredits all of the top brick-and-mortar b-schools and ensures that the program meets educational standards.
Most online programs you encounter will claim to be accredited by some organization, but some of these accreditations don't amount to much. The AACSB does not accredit for-profit programs such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University. While you can certainly learn business basics from such programs, they don't represent the same level of instruction you will receive from programs that adhere to the same educational standards as the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management.
If at all possible, I also recommend pursuing online degrees with short-term in person residencies. For example, the UNC Kenan-Flagler program will feature up to four weekend residencies at different locations worldwide. IE Business School requires two one-week residencies in Madrid, and Duke University's Fuqua School of Business includes five short residency sessions along with the online work. While the residencies might not yield the lifelong friendships and business partners many acquire during their traditional b-school experiences, they still offer chances to interact with professors and classmates face-to-face, which will remain an important business skill no matter how much of our work and education can be conducted online.