Pandemic Strengthens Attractiveness Of Online MBA Options

When W. Brooke Elliott was given the green light in early February to lead the online MBA program at Gies Business College, some of his colleagues expressed concern that his timing was bad. She was taking over the world’s fastest growing MBA program, a disruptive online option with explosive growth. With a total price tag of $ 22,000, Gies’ iMBA has grown from a standing start four years ago to a total enrollment of nearly 3,000 students.

His colleagues believed there was simply no way anyone could support this kind of growth. And then, days after she became associate dean of Gies’ online initiative on February 3, the coronavirus pandemic struck. As physical classrooms around the world closed and classrooms went virtual, millions of students took lessons through Zoom.

“There was some concern that distance education exposure would hurt the demand for online programs,” says Elliott, who had headed the school’s accounting department. “Sometimes Zoom classes aren’t the most positive experiences and it can be difficult to keep students engaged. “

Perhaps that is an understatement. The pandemic rush for distance education has led to widespread disappointment among students. More than 75% said they didn’t think they had a quality learning experience, according to a survey of nearly 1,300 students by online exam preparation provider OneClass. Many students have requested reimbursement of tuition fees for courses they felt could not replace the high quality education they had paid for.

The concern of Elliott’s colleagues was that Zoom courses would make students sour about online education, even if they were not a replacement for a well-designed online course. In a true online course, a teacher can invest up to a year of time and effort designing, designing and producing their courses with live and pre-recorded material, protagonist appearances, case studies, quizzes. convincing and teamwork.

“Distance education and online education are not the same thing,” says Elliott. “People have had the opportunity to see that they don’t want to pay what a traditional program costs for a distance education experience that was not designed to be online. From the start, we were very careful about the structure of our online courses and how they would engage students. We have a fully empowered e-learning team that our teachers collaborate with to create the courses. When people have a choice between a proven program designed to be online or a simply remote program, they will go for the well-designed online degree program.

The result ? “There is now more demand for online education than we have ever seen,” says W. Brooke Elliott, the associate dean who oversees the program. “We have seen tremendous growth in the number of students enrolled. Right now we’re tracking 2,400 applications for the next cohort, which would represent a 30% year-over-year increase. ”

She expects the iMBA cohort in August to be the largest single admission on record with over 1,100 students. For its October cohort, Gies now expects 3,000 applicants, a number that would translate into 60% year-over-year growth. That would translate into the school’s total online MBA enrollment of 3,750 to 4,000 this fall, up from 2,844 in the spring.

Too bad for the bad timing. “The recession has displaced a lot of people and they are looking at different educational pathways. Many are on leave and want to learn new skills. They expect their leave to be lifted and return to work. For them, online programs are more attractive than full-time programs.

Gies is hardly alone. After initially hoping to attract an initial cohort of 250 to 300 students for its new $ 24,000 online MBA which starts in September, Boston University Questrom Business School now intends to enroll a class of 400 students. That would be 33% to 60% above the planned target for the program and 100 more students than the 300 currently enrolled in Questrom’s full-time residential MBA.

Rarely does a month go by when another top school jumps to the top of the online MBA bandwagon. In addition to the upcoming offer from the BU, Howard University and Wake Forest University announced new online MBA offerings earlier this year. Howard, in fact, enrolled his first online MBA and online executive MBA programs in May. The relatively new online MBA programs of the University of Michigan and Southern Methodist University have not yet graduated from a class. The ecosystem that gives more importance to online options is also firmly in place from online MBA ranking considerable financial support from schools expanding their programs; and a growing alumni base of natural ambassadors.

at Indiana University Kelley School of Business, one of the early pioneers of online learning, early applications for his online MBA are up 15% from the record volume of applications the previous year. The rush to distance education is pushing more and more people to view online programs as a viable option, says Ramesh Venkataraman, president of Kelley’s online degree offerings. “It creates a mindset that high-quality, legitimate online offerings should be part of the consideration package. Before, some might still have hesitations. “

Much of the appeal of an online degree program can be reduced to the flexibility and price. Students don’t have to quit their jobs and lose income while studying, and most online options are cheaper. Kelley’s Traditional MBA program offers a sticker price of $ 111,352 for tuition, fees, and books for non-residents. That’s 33% more than his online MBA, without factoring in the opportunity costs of having to quit a job to take the residential version.

Yet even premium priced online MBA options are seeing an increase in demand. At the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC, where the sticker award for its MBA @ UNC is a steep amount of $ 125,589, there are a lot of takers. The school’s next cohort starting in July currently has 105 students, up 33% from 79 a year earlier. Registration for the July cohort, by the way, is still not complete and the school continues to provide students for this promotion.

“Many potential students feel like they want to use this time while they are at home to begin the program when they typically travel for work,” says Kara Adams, associate director of admissions and recruiting at students at Kenan-Flagler. “With many companies stating that employees won’t be back until next year, applicants seem to think it’s the best time for them to start and get used to the schedule, work balance / personal life and time management. “

Elliott at Gies says there is no evidence that the abrupt shift to distance education at residential colleges has prevented anyone from an online degree program. “I haven’t seen that,” she insists, “and if you look at our growth in apps, that doesn’t confirm that. Instead, people have been exposed to learning in a remote environment and they realize that it can be engaging and of high quality. So they’re looking at the leaders in the online space and I think that’s what has driven the demand.

“During the health crisis, we all realized that we could work effectively remotely. So we have become more open to the idea of ​​engaging in this way. People also see how personal it can be. When you learn online, you are invited to your students and classmates. You see children in the background, or dogs and cats, books and family photos on the shelves.

The recession, which is expected to boost applications for full-time MBA programs after five consecutive years of declining applications, is also fueling further growth in online education. “There’s a ton of uncertainty right now,” says Elliott. “People don’t like uncertainty and it’s really hard to make commitments in times of uncertainty.”

The flexibility of a more affordable online MBA, she adds, allows for that uncertainty. “Maybe you go back to work if you’ve been put on leave, or if something else changes and your time is different. Maybe your kids aren’t going back to school in the fall because of COVID. You have the option of taking fewer courses or skipping a term. You don’t have to follow the same path as everyone else in a residential program that requires a two-year commitment. You can take a break if things get busy and get back on track. “

That’s why she doesn’t think her timing was bad at all. On the contrary, the affordability, flexibility, and quality of online MBA programs at top schools are not just here to stay; it is there to flourish.

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