For-profit schools, such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, have garnered significant attention in recent years. As the schools seek to reach more students through aggressive advertising campaigns—University of Phoenix has a $154 million naming rights deal for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals' stadium—and politicians push for more stringent industry regulations, efforts made by other schools in the online sector can go seemingly unnoticed. For-profit schools are not accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), which is regarded as the benchmark for business school quality among the academic community, experts say.
However, several traditional business programs accredited by the AACSB have made the push into the online realm in recent years. Business programs at the University of North Carolina, Pennsylvania State University, and Indiana University, among others, offer MBAs online comparable to the ones they've long offered on campus.
School officials note that the smattering of online MBA programs offered by brick and mortar schools today represents a genesis of business schools adopting online programs, not the peak.
"[Other schools] are trying to find out how we do what we do," says Terrill Cosgray, executive director of Kelley Direct—the online program established by Indiana University's Kelley School of Business that admits more than 200 students a year. "It appears there are a lot of programs that are exploring the option of an online program."
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Officials at various online MBA programs maintain that students are held to the same admissions standards as their on-campus peers. Some programs, such as Penn State's Intercollege MBA, occasionally admit a lower percentage of applicants for the online program compared to the traditional, full-time MBA, and these programs are typically taught by the same professors who teach on-campus classes.
The University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, which launched its online MBA program in the fall 2011, waited to enroll students until it felt technology was up to par. "The quality of the students, faculty, and curriculum will remain the same," says Kenan-Flagler spokesperson Allison Adams. "We can do this well now, thanks to technological advances."
Business schools with established online programs note that they appeal to a different demographic than traditional, full-time MBA programs. Kelley Direct students, for instance, are 31 years old, on average, which is three years older than their on-campus counterparts. Additionally, the average salary among online students when they begin the program is roughly the same as the average salary of full-time, on-campus MBA students when they leave their program.
Business school officials note that online MBA students are typically farther along in their career and hoping to get a final leg up—akin to traditional executive MBA students—rather than pursuing the degree in the hopes of making a drastic career change.
"Almost all of our incoming students are already employed," says Ashutosh Deshmukh, chair of Penn State's online iMBA program, which was established in 2002 and admits 120 students a year. "Their most important objective is to move upward in their own organizations."
Conversely, some of the online programs opt to include residential programs along with online coursework. Kelley Direct, for instance, requires students to spend a week during their first year, and another during their second, on campus working in groups to create business plans that will be applied by companies ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 firms.
Recent studies by the Department of Education suggest that a blend of online and in-person instruction is the most effective method of teaching, and Kelley Direct officials agree. "We still recognize that there are certain things that cannot be replicated as well online as can occur in residence," says Eric Richards, chair of Kelley Direct Public Programs.
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Though there's been increased interest in developing comprehensive online programs among the business school community, some top schools firmly believe that online methods remain insufficient. For instance, Harvard Business School, which tops U.S. News's rankings of Best Business Schools, does not have an online program and maintains that one won't be in place in the near future.
"Although we certainly recognize the increase in popularity and availability of online MBA programs it is not a consideration for Harvard Business School because of the nature of our teaching pedagogy," the school said in a statement.
"Harvard Business School uses the case method—a discussion-based approach to teaching and learning. It requires people to be together discussing the details of the case and talking back and forth presenting different points of view. The interaction between participants is a critical element of the learning process and technology has not yet advanced to a stage where it is possible to replicate that interaction at the scale needed for a robust case discussion."
Ryan Lytle contributed to this report.
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