Six degrees of separation
online MBAs still proving themselves to cautious employers

By Ann Quigley / May 2001

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Al Williams knew he was taking a chance. An MBA is supposed to be the ticket to business success, but Williams was one of six students graduating with "WebMBAs" from the University of Baltimore.

As the first graduates of one of the first online MBA programs accredited by the International Association for Management Education, they had reason to be proud. But they proceeded with the healthy caution of pioneers, introducing themselves to a job market not quite certain if an online MBA alerted the presence of a correspondence-course hack, a visionary high-tech learner, or something else entirely.

"Since the 'pioneering' class was small, I was worried we might prove too small an experiment—especially if demand didn't pick up from future prospective students," said Williams, now the vice president of information technology at Bedford, Mass.-based MRO Software, Inc. The University of Baltimore was among the first of many accredited schools to offer online MBAs, but virtual MBA enrollment is expected to rocket from 5,000 to 50,000 over the next two years, according to higher education research firm InterEd, based in Eagle, Idaho.

No Free Ride

What's less certain is how the job market will receive the influx of online degrees. A Business Week magazine survey late last year of nearly 250 corporate recruiters found most recruiters somewhat skeptical of online business school graduates' skills. Executives say online MBAs must prove themselves, and it's too soon to tell whether virtual classrooms produce solid job candidates. "The effectiveness of online MBAs will be determined by 'on the job' performance and their ability to succeed in the workplace," says David Carvajal, a general manager at Hotjobs.com, a recruiting company in New York City.

Drawing distinctions between concrete and virtual classrooms is beside the point, others say. "Education is not a place—it is a process," notes Vicky Phillips, CEO of GetEducated.com, an education consulting company based in Essex Junction, Vermont. "Give any university a good, motivated student and they will graduate a good, motivated degree-holder."

A Troubled Beginning

Some of the hesitancy toward distance education may reflect the reputation it has picked up during its long history. Beginning with the U.S. postal mail correspondence courses of the late 19th century, the distance education field has attracted its share of hucksters eager to relieve a steady stream of motivated students of their cash. Today's "diploma mill" Web sites, featuring images of ivy-covered mansions, promise you an MBA or Ph.D in 30 days—just call with your credit card ready.

This taint has made distance education something to gloss over or even lie about on the resume. In 1999, The Wall Street Journal outed Jeff Papows, then CEO of Lotus Development Corp., who claimed he had a Ph.D from Pepperdine University (Papows holds a master's from Pepperdine, but his Ph.D is from a correspondence school, according to the article).

But a body of independent research suggests distance learning may be nothing to be ashamed of. After assessing more than 400 studies of distance-education methods, Thomas L. Russell, director emeritus of instructional telecommunications at North Carolina State University, found that most studies showed no significant difference between distance and traditional methods. However, not everyone agrees: A 1999 review of distance learning research sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association questioned the effectiveness of distance learning in higher education compared to classroom-based instruction.

It's All in the Name

Until the opinions gel, the two A's ensure an online degree will be taken seriously: Accreditation and Affiliation (with a solid brick and mortar institution). Accreditation, either by the International Association for Management Education (AACSB), one of the country's six regional boards, or the Distance Education and Training Council in Washington, D.C., ensures an MBA program is rigorously assessed on a regular basis and adheres to certain standards for faculty and program design. Finding an MBA program affiliated with a good school isn't difficult these days. "The majority of graduate-level distance learning degrees in business or management come from universities that have been in existence in brick and mortar form for about a century," Phillips notes. "This was not true five years ago, but it is now."

Last April, U.S. News & World Report rated Duke's executive MBA program,which is available as a distance program, as the second-best of its kind in the country. The universities of Maryland and Massachusetts-Amherst, along with Purdue, Colorado State, and Syracuse, also offer online business degrees, and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill will launch a distance program next year.

A handful of brand new, Internet-only universities are also building momentum. "It takes about twenty years to establish an educational brand in the mind of the public," Phillips notes. "So, yes new schools will have a harder time." Among these are Capella University—accredited by a regional board, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools—and Cardean University, accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council. Cardean offers an MBA online with course work developed with faculty from Columbia Business School, Stanford, and other prestigious schools.

To gain market ground, Cardean has focused marketing efforts on companies, for employee education, as well as offering courses to individuals. Which raises an interesting point: Everyone's afraid of what employers think about distance learning, yet corporations have traditionally used distance learning to keep employees well-educated on the job. "Some of the oldest and largest distance learning degree programs in the U.S. are only open to corporate subscribers or companies that pay to bring degree programs to their students," says Phillips, who points out Stanford University has a program only open to corporate subscribers, and Babson College's distance MBA in Entrepreneurship, launched this year, will be available only at corporate sites at Intel in California.

A Degree is a Degree

Most schools with online MBA programs claim to see no reason to distinguish between their online offerings and their traditional programs, and no need for students to even mention their degree was earned online to potential employers. "Although the name might be confusing, the degree our students receive upon graduation is the Duke MBA," says Christy Parrish of Duke's Fuqua School of Business. "This degree is the same whether a student matriculates in the Global Executive, the Cross Continent, the Weekend, or the traditional Daytime MBA programs." So when Al Williams was searching for a job after graduating from Baltimore, technically he didn't even have to mention his degree was earned online. He had a University of Baltimore MBA, and that was that. But he decided he had nothing to hide, and he didn't end up regretting his openness with potential employers. "Many viewed it as a plus—I was a person who pioneered a new approach using new technology and didn't let obstacles get in the way of continued learning," Williams comments. "Granted, it probably helped that I am in the information technology field to begin with!"

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