What does the closure of the only on-campus, all-female MBA program mean for the future of women’s education?
Last week, Boston-based Simmons College announced that it will transition its all-female MBA program to an online-only, co-ed format beginning in March 2016. The new MBA program will be offered to men and women nationwide and will be powered by 2U, a marketing and education platform provider that has partnered with universities like Yale and NYU in the past.
While Princeton Review named it the No. 1 MBA program in the U.S. in the “Greatest Opportunity for Women” category this year, the Simmons’ lack of brand recognition outside of the Boston area made it very difficult for the small school to compete, says Simmons president Helen Drinan.
Now that women are enrolling in MBA programs at top schools like Harvard Business School and the Wharton School in record numbers, “growth [for Simmons] is not achievable,” says Drinan. According to reporting by the Boston Globe, enrollment has decreased 38% since 2008 and there are currently 105 students enrolled for this fall’s MBA program. Only 20 of these are full-time, notes Drinan.
“At the graduate level…we can’t seem to get beyond a regional influence,” she says. “The cold, hard reality is the further away from Boston you get, it’s ‘Simmons who?’”
Many Simmons MBA alumnae were unsatisfied with Drinan’s explanation and feel as though more could have been done to keep the brick-and-mortar school running. Sara Hartmann, who graduated from the program in 2010, says the school’s marketing and admissions department, which had convinced her to attend the school over other, better-known programs, was dismantled a few years ago. “Simmons took away the School of Management’s ability to recruit its own students and now is saying, look, they can’t recruit any students,” she says.
Drinan says that there is no causal relationship between falling enrollment numbers and the reorganization of the admissions department: “We did not terminate anyone—we simply centralized them,” she says.
Hartmann also believes that many of Simmons’ faculty members left the school because of resistance to the new online model. The year after she graduated, “there was a wave of exodus [of faculty members] from the school,” she recalls. While Drinan agrees that “there are no bigger naysayers [to online education] than our faculty,” she says that the teaching staff at Simmons has now embraced the change. “I can’t recall any period of time in my seven years as president that constitutes a mass exodus.”
In a meeting and webinar between Simmons administration, faculty and students on Tuesday night, many students expressed concerns about what the change will mean for the value of their MBA degrees, and for Simmons as a brand. An online MBA degree isn’t nearly as valuable as a traditional MBA degree, says alumna Alisha Uhlenbrock-Furst. “No one hires an online MBA. Those are definitely, unofficially, garbage,” she says.
While many schools offer online MBAs, research suggests that employers are less likely to actively seek out online MBA students than they are students of traditional programs. According to reporting by CBS News, a 2009 Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) study reported that only 9% of companies actively recruit candidates from online programs, compared to the 77% that pursue full-time MBA grads. However, U.S. News and World Report reports that employers’ perceptions about web-only degrees are rapidly evolving.
Proponents argue that online programs also allow women to avoid some of the psychological and social barriers that prevent them from getting the most of their educations.
Still, the outcry over the termination of Simmons program and last year’s “Save Sweet Briar” campaign suggests that all-female programs are still very much in demand. Perhaps the question isn’t so much whether the Simmons College MBA program could have been saved, but why so many women need it to exist in the first place.
Subscribe to The Broadsheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the world’s most powerful women.