Weighing the merits of an online MBA

Nov 09, 2012

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I was intrigued by your column about online degree programs, because lately I’ve been interviewing candidates for a department head position at my company. The people who have held this job before have been MBAs, as are the most promising people I’m considering right now, but there’s a catch. Two of them, both highly qualified in terms of experience, got their graduate business degrees online -- one from a school I’ve never heard of (which I realize doesn’t necessarily mean anything, since I’m hardly an expert on the subject). Can you tell me how to evaluate an online MBA degree? — Stumped in SoHo

Dear Stumped: You aren’t the only one wondering. Headhunters and hiring managers hold wildly differing views on the merits of online MBAs, according to Tavia Ewen, a recruiter in the Houston office of the Alexander Group, which specializes in C-suite executive and board member searches. Ewen has heard some variation of your question from so many clients that she has come up with a list of four guidelines for evaluating an online MBA.

Long-distance programs are usually made up of exactly the same course content as campus-based MBAs, Ewen notes, and they answer a real need. “So many executives now maintain rigorous travel schedules, with some on the road up to five days a week” that traditional classroom learning just isn’t practical, she says. “So universities have responded accordingly, with prestigious institutions like Duke, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School offering their programs online for on-the-go professionals.”

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As you point out, however, many lesser-known schools have followed suit. Here’s how to evaluate a long-distance MBA with an unfamiliar name.<!-- more -->

1. Find out if the university is accredited. “This is the single most important component of assessing the value of a distance learning degree,” says Ewen. Bona fide graduate business schools should be accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which lists every institution it accredits worldwide on its website. Ewen also recommends the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and the Association of MBAs, particularly when the program in question is outside the U.S.

2. Take a look at the program’s entry requirements. “Entry requirements for distance learning MBA programs run the gamut from minimal to highly demanding, but they’ve generally become more stringent over time,” Ewen says. “That’s particularly true for schools that have strong reputations to maintain.”

A good online MBA program will hold its virtual applicants to the same standards as its in-person students, including a minimum undergraduate grade point average, a threshold for GRE or GMAT scores, letters of recommendation, and specific professional experience. Check out the program’s website to see how high its admissions committee has set the bar.

3. Find out whether the program offers an on-campus classroom component. Aiming to combat skepticism about the value of distance learning, many universities now include “condensed, intensive campus sessions for distance learning students,” Ewen says. “These programs are often referred to as ‘hybrid’ or ‘blended.'”

The in-person classes usually last from three to five days and allow students to make networking connections that can be valuable later in their careers. “A candidate’s description of his or her on-campus experience, and the value it added, should give you some insight into the rigor of the overall program,” Ewen says.

4. Ask the candidate how he or she chose the program. “Graduate school is a serious investment of money and time, and candidates should be able to articulate their reasoning behind selecting a particular school,” Ewen says. “'Convenience’ is not an adequate answer.”

Ideal candidates will likely say that the curriculum was designed to fill in specific gaps in his or her skills, or that a program offered a global perspective, or because the candidate wanted to attend a school that is particularly well-regarded in his or her field without having to move thousands of miles away. Whatever the case may be, Ewen says, “the point is that candidates should be able to convey solid reasoning and strong enthusiasm for their choice.”

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Of course, these tips are worth noting for prospective online MBA students as well, especially No. 3. It’s long been widely accepted (if not often talked about) that the biggest advantage of getting an MBA -- particularly if it’s from a prestigious school -- is not so much the technical knowledge it imparts, but rather the chance to meet fellow rising stars from other companies. An MBA program with no in-person component is not as likely to provide that.

Talkback: If you’ve earned an MBA online, has it served you well? If you’re a hiring manager, would you look askance at a long-distance MBA on a candidate’s resume? Leave a comment below.

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