MBA Learners Go the Distance

A troubled economy bolsters growth in online business programs

Denny Basham, who lives in Colorado and is a systems engineer for a software company, is studying for his MBA like many others in this weakening economy. But, like a growing number of these students, Basham hasn't quit his job and moved to earn his degree. He's doing it online.

In an era where any job is precious enough to hold onto and the price of gas remains a worry, more MBA seekers are earning their degrees through distance programs. For instance, at the University of Florida, which has a 275-student distance MBA program that's been online since 1999, there's been a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in applications since last year. Alex Sevilla, the assistant dean and MBA director, attributes the response to today's economic uncertainties.

"If I'm not certain where my job is going, should I make this investment if I'm not sure I'll be here physically for the next two years? An Internet program eliminates that worry," Sevilla said.

That's the sort of thinking that sold Basham. After considering a wide range of programs, he decided to go with the Thunderbird Global MBA On-Demand, an online program offered by Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, because he could keep his job and pay off his mortgage and car payments.

"Say I lost my job: If I had to move from Colorado to somewhere else, I could still keep working on my MBA," Basham said. "I think the programs are getting better, too. It's really hard to tell if someone went distance or fulltime."

fueled by gas prices

Indeed, for many of today's aspiring MBAs with several years of work experience, an online MBA enables them to balance a rigorous job that may involve travel with a thirst to increase intellectual capital. This kind of program, which appeared more than decade ago, has gained momentum over the last couple of years as it's become more socially acceptable.

"Distance learning programs were a trickle early on, but due to the economy and gas prices early this summer, things are taking off," said John Bourne, the executive director of the Sloan Consortium, an organization that integrates online education into the mainstream.

This holds true of online MBA programs and online higher education in general, which had 3.9 million participants in fall of 2007, an increase of 12.9 percent over the previous year, according to the consortium. The overall population of students in higher education grew by only 1.2 percent. Most online students are undergrads; graduate students make up 14 percent of online enrollment.

It's hard to say how much of the recent growth in online MBA enrollment is being spurred by the downturn as opposed to the baseline trend upward in distance education, but business schools say the volatile economy is certainly driving some of it.

"It's tempting to associate increased application volume with deteriorating economic conditions," said Michael Eleey, the assistant dean and managing director of the MBA Online program at Arizona State University, which has 420 students and is seeing a jump of 10 percent to 20 percent in applications. "That probably is a good part of what's going on, at least from what we hear about those inquiring and applying for the program."

more interactivityi

Online MBA programs have advanced beyond chats and one-way video lectures, incorporating elements of interaction between students and professors. Now, most programs use methods that simulate real classrooms, allowing students and professors to converse and offer presentations. Some programs are using virtual technologies such as Second Life.

Proponents of online programs point out that besides the cost-savings, most schools don't differentiate on the diploma itself between degrees earned online or in traditional programs. Many of the online programs combine the online curriculum with short residency periods at the actual campus.

However, there are still some advantages to traditional programs. MBA admissions consultant Linda Abraham said that while online programs save students time and money, they don't yet have the same credibility as traditional classrooms in the employment arena, and don't offer the same networking and "informal education" opportunities.

Still, at Arizona State, 25 students in face-to-face programs requested a transfer to the MBA Online Program within the last year, about double the usual rate, according to Assistant Dean Eleey.

"This is symptomatic of the general turbulence we're seeing in the world of work over the last couple of years or particularly the last year with respect to economic conditions," he said. "Changes and volatility in people's jobs have created a need for people who have started in face-to-face to move online, and we see that trend increasing, not declining."

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