Their popularity is soaring, but some are diploma mills,
making recruiters wary of virtual degrees. Here are tips for
picking a good program
Dale Bolger, the vice-president of information services for
Oki Data Americas and a 2003 MBA graduate of the University
of Phoenix online program, has worked in international
business for almost 20 years. Maintaining a hectic travel
schedule but wishing to advance his career with an MBA, Bolger
saw an online program as his only option. "I could be
in a hotel in Tokyo or on the road in Brazil or Europe --
and still learn and be attached to the school," says
For prospective students like Bolger, whose circumstances
make it tough to attend on-campus courses, getting a degree
online can be the only option. And programs offering that
choice are growing at a blistering pace, with thousands of
online MBA's being granted annually through the distance-learning
divisions of traditional bricks-and-mortar B-schools and newer
virtual colleges whose ivied halls exist only in cyberspace.
"RIPE" FOR FRAUD. Many of the online MBA programs
are well-regarded and offer a way for busy people, such as
Bolger, to get advanced education without having to sidetrack
a career for a year or two. But, as in many growing fields,
cautions abound. Concerns about "diploma mills,"
or substandard institutions without proper accreditation that
offer degrees with little or no serious work, are growing.
Diploma mills range from those practising outright deceit
-- like St. Regis University, which falsely asserted Liberian
government approval and was closed by court order in June,
2005 -- to organizations that require only a modicum of work
for a degree, says Alan Contreras, administrator of the Oregon
Office of Degree Authorization, a state organization that
approves individual degree programs. "In the case of
diploma mills, I call the schools 'suppliers' and the degree-holders
'users' because the educational component is often minimal,"
CORPORATE SKEPTICS. Even with the best programs, online
students lack the means to build their professional network
or even interact in person with classmates. But the schools
say that isn't a problem.
"There's a really strong, off-the-radar network building
up on its own," says Michael Goess, chairman of the Division
of Business for Graduate Programs at Regis
University in Denver. (Regis University is not connected
with the shuttered St. Regis school.) Goess points out that
students often arrange to meet on their own time, as well
as trade e-mails and network electronically.
For those who expect the same respect from corporate recruiters,
think again. "The only way we'd hire [an MBA with an
online degree] is if their résumé is strong
and they can explain why they had to get their MBA online,"
says Gloria Odogbili, assistant MBA recruiter for UBS Investment
Bank in New York.
GROWING POPULARITY. The online schools, on the other hand,
insist that they offer a quality alternative, despite some
questionable actors in the space. "On the downside, people
lump all of what goes on in the online learning environment
together, " says University of Phoenix CEO Brian Mueller.
"But on the upside, people who take the time to research
their options will see that there are a group of schools,
including the University of Phoenix, that have produced a
methodology that helps students produce quality work."
Mueller adds, "Our students will tell you that, when
they compare our online courses to our classroom courses,
the online courses require more time and are more rigorous
than the classroom courses."
The MBA world's misgivings haven't prevented online programs
from expanding rapidly. With yearly enrollment numbering about
16,000, the University of Phoenix online MBA program -- the
for-profit online school is a subsidiary of the Apollo Group
(APOL ) -- reports year-to-year growth in excess of 50% since
its inception in 1989.
HOW TO JUDGE. Similarly, when Regis
University launched its first online MBA program in 1996,
enrollment peaked at 14 students. Now about 1,800 students
join the program every eight weeks. And in a 2003 survey of
more than 500 B-schools accredited by the Association to Advance
Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) worldwide, 39 reported
having virtual programs -- and more are being created every
The criteria for choosing an online program differ from that
of the more traditional full-time one. Here are some guidelines
for selecting the cybercourse that's right for you:
The experts agree that the mandatory first step in choosing
a program is to find out if it's accredited -- and by which
organization. If it's not accredited by the AACSB, the oldest
and most well-known accrediting organization, then you should
look for regional accreditation. This means that the organization
examining the program is approved by the U.S. government.
"Unless the school is [accredited by] a federally recognized
accrediting organization, it means zilch," says Contreras.
But to get that coveted AACSB nod requires a relatively high
level of interaction between students and faculty. "The
AACSB committee thinks higher of programs where students and
faculty interact concurrently," as opposed to at times
of their choosing, mostly because it's more directly comparable
to the classroom, says Rich Sorensen, the dean of Virginia
Polytechnic Institute and State University Pamplin College
of Business and chairman of AACSB's board.
With so many online MBA programs popping up, Phillips estimates
that nearly a million people fall for fake programs every
year. "All diploma mills advertise as being accredited,
so it's vital to know if the accrediting organization is legitimate,"
It's the high level of interaction between students and faculty
that separates a solid program from a poser. At the Indiana
University Kelley Direct program in Bloomington, Ind., the
faculty members all teach in both the full-time and online
"Knowing that all the professors teaching in the program
are tenure-track professors really set my mind at ease,"
says Tom Croston, a 41-year-old student of Kelley Direct.
If professors offer a synchronous discussion period for online
students, they're required to schedule more than one to accommodate
those needing to log on in different parts of the world. "Not
only were my professors available for discussion online, but
I could also call them on the phone to discuss coursework,"
Either way, it's important to assess whether the structure
jibes with your learning style. The best online programs are
the ones that offer brief in-classroom periods, says George
Lorenzo, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Your
MBA Online (Alpha Books, 2005). If a program requires travel
to a school's physical campus, you must note that and plan
for the extra expense. Some programs require as many as three
weekends per year and others just one.
Resources and support
Be sure that the program has sufficient resources and support
services, such as career placement, that are available even
if you can't make it to campus. At Kelley Direct, widely respected
for its connection to a top-tier MBA course, the career-services
department provides more than just placement. "[Through
the department], our students and alums can improve their
interviewing skills, gain insight into market trends, prepare
for internal promotions, learn how to mentor, and many other
skills," says Joelle Andrew-Mohr, Kelley Direct's program
It's especially important to have a large online library
to conduct research for papers. The best programs will go
beyond that and even have an online service to help students
with their writing, says the University of Phoenix' Mueller.
To find out if such resources exist, go beyond the school
Web site -- and the salespeople hired to paint a pretty picture
of the program. "Ask tough questions because you're going
to be investing a lot of money in this," says Lorenzo.
Call institutions to ask about the faculty's credentials,
as well as the students. The qualities of both sets of people
will help determine how much you're getting for your money.
Just how much money you'll pay for an online program can vary
broadly -- from $5,000 to $10,000 for a nonaccredited program,
to about $25,000 for a degree from Regis University, to roughly
$45,000 for a Kelley MBA. Phillips, of GetEducated.com, says
many of the best deals are found at state universities, many
of which now offer in-state tuition to out-of-state online
students. "Students don't often find the state programs
because they don't have the advertising budget that for-profit
institutions have," explains Phillips.
Whether you choose to go for that top-tier program or your
neighborhood institution, seek the right fit. Lorenzo says
online programs actually teach a set of skills unique to the
technologically advanced world in which we live. "It
teaches you to work in virtual teams -- to learn the communication
skills that are valuable in the real world -- which is more
and more the virtual world."
But some things don't change -- online students at good programs
still have to do their homework or their virtual professor
will give them a very real F.