Even As They Proliferate, Online M.B.A.s Remain Controversial

Though some applaud the flexibility and cost of online M.B.A.s, others say their value is inflated.

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In an early October press release, Saint Leo University, a private Catholic school based in Florida, announced a new $12 million building for its School of Business—$4 million of which came from Donald Tapia, an alumnus of its online B.A. and M.B.A. programs. "Although Don Tapia never stepped foot on campus until his undergraduate commencement, he has left a lasting imprint on the Saint Leo campus," according to the release. 

Not only are online M.B.A. programs helping schools like Saint Leo raise money, but they are also increasingly popping up at universities all over the world. Some of the highest ranked U.S. News's Best Business Schools have online M.B.A.s, including Indiana University—Bloomington's Kelley School of Business, Pennsylvania State University—University Park's Smeal College of Business, and University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School. And some schools, such as Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, offer blended programs, which have an online component.

But not everyone admires this trend. When New York-based career coach Roy Cohen talks about online M.B.A.s, he doesn't hold back. 

"[A]n online M.B.A. has virtually no measurable value with respect to [the] job search and career management," says Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide. "Its only value is to the schools and private companies that market them to an increasingly nervous universe of worried workers." 

In a difficult economy where graduates of top M.B.A. programs struggle to find jobs, only students interested in simply furthering their education, rather than vocational opportunities, should pursue online M.B.A.s, Cohen says. 

A 2010 report published by the Society for Human Resource Management, which has more than 250,000 members in 140 countries, seems to support Cohen's opinion.

Just 34 percent of the nearly 450 human resources professionals surveyed for the report said they viewed job applicants with online degrees as favorably as alumni of traditional programs. Fifty-five percent said they wouldn't penalize online degree holders with the same job experience as candidates with traditional degrees, but only 15 percent thought online degrees were appropriate for executive-level hires.

[Get the lowdown on the online M.B.A.]

Although the poll didn't focus on online M.B.A.s, it showed that attitudes toward online programs may be slipping. In 2009, 90 percent of respondents thought views of online programs had improved in a five-year span; in 2010, the percentage had dropped to 87.

"Unfortunately, there is still a strange stigma associated with online programs," says Emily Stancil, marketing manager at a financial analysis firm in Raleigh, N.C., and an online M.B.A. candidate at Arizona State University.

Stancil says skeptics of online M.B.A. programs often don't understand how they work. "My program is incredibly structured; we take one class at a time," she says. "We are in constant contact online with our group members, our professors, as well as our online advisers."

[Learn which top M.B.A. programs are embracing online education.]

George Lorenzo, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Your M.B.A. Online, says the content of courses in traditional and online M.B.A.s are the same, so they ought to be treated equally.

"In fact, in today's digital world, I believe an online M.B.A. can be considered valuable, because these grads pick up solid electronic communication and presentation skills that are frequently used in a more globalized corporate world," he says.

Jonathan Blaine, who holds a B.S. and an M.B.A. from the nonprofit online school Western Governors University (WGU), blames the negative reputation of online programs on some of his alma mater's competition. "Unfortunately 'online' often has been stigmatized due to the often shoddy education at the private, for-profit online schools," he says, but also adds that he's seen the reputation of online M.B.A.s improve since he was an "online guinea pig" in 2005.

Corrected on 10/31/11: An earlier version of this article misstated the nature of the M.B.A. offered by Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.