As a brand manager for the bioscience company Zeneca, Renee Henze does a lot of traveling. But at the end of the day, rather than veg out in front of the hotel-room tube, she boots up her laptop, plugs it into a phone jack, and goes to school.
Henze, 30, is a virtual MBA student at Syracuse University's School of Management, expecting to graduate in May. She is one of a growing number of students opting for "distance learning," a high-tech alternative to the traditional MBA path of quitting a job and spending two years on campus.
More and more B-schools, including Duke and Auburn, are offering distance degrees to students long past their undergrad years. "They're in their 30s and 40s, juggling careers and families," says William Laidlaw, executive vice-president of the International Association of Management Education, an accrediting organization in St. Louis (314 872-8481; www.aacsb.edu). "Schools are realizing that the notion of tying students to one location at one time" ignores technologies that have altered the workplace, says Laidlaw, who's pursuing a distance doctorate in business management from Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead school.
NET RESEARCH. Chief among these technologies is the Internet, which gives students access to class material and lets them do research at their convenience. It's easy for students to have dialogues with professors and classmates via E-mail, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. Many also use video to deliver instruction. For example, Colorado State University and Auburn University mail out videotapes of lectures within 24 hours of the actual class so coursework closely tracks what on-campus students do. Oklahoma State University, meanwhile, uses videoconferencing to allow professors to interact with students assembled at corporate and school-supported sites. Others transmit lectures via satellite and use audio tapes and CD-ROMs to augment textbooks.
Distance MBA programs typically last two to three years, with a five-year maximum for finishing. They differ in the amount of "face time" spent on campus. Requirements range from none at Colorado State to nine weeks to graduate from Syracuse. Ohio University students take part in annual weeklong "residencies," presenting projects and attending lectures that lay the foundation for coming coursework. They also get to network. "Business partnerships are frequently forged," says Richard Milter, director of Ohio University's MBA Without Boundaries program.
Admission to most distance programs requires students to be employed and have an average of 10 years' work experience. Employers often cover the cost, which can be steep. The tab for the 19-month program for global execs at Duke's Fuqua school is $85,800. Programs at public universities tend to be less expensive: $17,000 to $35,000, not including books and software.
With that much money at stake, it's reasonable to wonder whether a distance MBA is as good as one earned in the classroom. "You're going to get the same training, regardless of the method of delivery," says Thomas Russell, director of the office of instructional communications at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. And distance students have the advantage of melding work and school projects. Henze, for example, designed a statistical program that analyzes customer preferences, getting high marks from both her professor and boss.
Distance learning is not for everyone. "It takes greater effort because of the amount of self-discipline required to do the work," Russell says. As a result, distance learning programs tend to have far higher dropout rates.
If you think you have the mettle for it, be sure to choose a school recognized by a regional accrediting agency endorsed by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Education Dept. Ask lots of questions about the curriculum and the technology used to deliver it, as well as about costs, faculty, and the transferability of credits. Once you're satisfied, log on and learn.