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Myriad MBAs

February 28, 2014

Corporate training and certificates, a $10,000 price tag or an intensive cohort experience -- how best can universities attract adult learners looking to advance their careers? In the rapidly expanding market of M.B.A. programs, the answer may be all of the above.

M.B.A. programs may seem like a good fit for an all-online mode of distribution, since they often attract working professionals whose job commitments interfere with in-person education. The subject matter, however, presents a challenge -- especially teaching softer skills such as organizational behavior -- as does the use of group work not only to educate students, but to create cohorts within business schools.

For many of the M.B.A. programs that have launched at Benedictine, Cornell and Villanova Universities in recent months, one potential answer is a hybrid strategy: deliver much of the course content online, but require some face-to-face interaction. Apart from the mode of delivery, the programs share few common features, as the institutions have targeted distinct parts of an overall M.B.A. market that in 2012 experienced a 52 percent increase in applications.

Cornell has chosen to drop some aspects of the full M.B.A. experience to attract some of those new students. The university runs traditional M.B.A. programs at two of its New York State campuses, but also offers online “M.B.A. level” education through the corporate training program Redshift. That program is one of more than 30 managed by eCornell, a certificate-granting subsidiary of the university.

Chris Proulx, CEO of eCornell, said small and medium-sized companies have so far been forced to choose between formal education and programs targeted at large corporations to train their employees. As a result, “a lot of organizations are still using new talent, new skill instead of developing internally. That speaks to a problem.”

For $40 a person per month, companies with 20 to 99 employees can receive unlimited access to Redshift material, much of which is pulled from Cornell’s Graduate School of Management. While Redshift doesn’t grant degrees, Rob Kingyens, eCornell’s chief marketing and technology officer, said Cornell’s Ivy League status grants the program a degree of legitimacy. Redshift features about 45 courses in topics such as new media marketing, sales and project execution.

"The corporate world is really interested in things that have a tangible return on investment,” Kingyens said. “If you are a leader within a corporation, there’s a level of trust there -- it’s coming from an Ivy League institution. It means employees take it more seriously.”

Value was at the forefront of the discussion when Benedictine University, the Roman Catholic institution in Lisle, Ill., explored how it could unify the different programs offered at its satellite campuses in Springfield, Ill., and Mesa, Ariz. The result is a $10,000 M.B.A. program that meets once a week, while the rest of the coursework is made available using Desire2Learn’s learning management software.

If the price point seems familiar, it may be because Benedictine has paid attention to institutions such as the Georgia Institute of Technology and its sub-$10,000 online master’s degree in computer science.

“We certainly were aware that there were others out that there were able to accomplish this, and that gave us some confidence,” said Michelle Koppitz, Benedictine’s vice president of adult and professional programs. She said the university settled on $10,000 after consulting both with employers who offer tuition remission and employees who would have to pay out of pocket. The target student, Koppitz said, has about five years of managerial experience and “is able to apply the knowledge within their workplace.”

Benedictine will cap its cohorts at 22 students, and the two campuses will during the spring pilot admit ten cohorts each. The two universities also share the belief that the hybrid and residential versions of their M.B.A. programs can co-exist.

“In terms of the traditional M.B.A. versus the $10,000 M.B.A, it’s a more accelerated version,” Koppitz said. “It also has the hybrid component, and not everyone is as comfortable moving back and forth between modalities.... The biggest key would be that the curriculum is consistent with what the program is offering on campus in terms of quality.”

That said, more traditional online programs aren’t going out of style. Villanova announced a new version of its M.B.A. program late last month, and apart from a two-day orientation to kick off first two semesters and a capstone course that includes a recommended international trip, the program is fully online. As at Benedictine, students will be separated into cohorts of about 20, which Patrick G. Maggitti, the Helen and William O’Toole Dean of Villanova’s School of Business, said could be described as a “liberal arts college” approach to online education.

With a total enrollment of about 10,000 students, Villanova is less than half the size of nearby Drexel University and about one-fourth the size of Temple University. Adding an online program will allow Villanova to admit more students than can fit in the space-limited residential program, Maggitti said.

“We’re going to give the schools in the local region even more competition than they’re used to from us,” Maggitti said.

Villanova expects the program to expand the university’s reach beyond the Philadelphia region. In addition to the institution competing with Drexel and Temple, Maggitti said he could see the program appealing to students in the Washington, D.C., and New York regions.

"We think the Villanova brand is strong enough to enter into this huge market,” Maggitti said.

Villanova may come to depend on that larger pool of prospective applicants. Students in the online version of the M.B.A. program will pay almost one-quarter more for their education -- $1,240 per credit hour, compared to $1,000 for residential students. Maryland, in comparison, only charges online students $56 more per credit hour.

Maggitti pegged the total cost of tuition at about $59,000. The premium may initially steer more students toward the residential program, he said, “but when you realize how much goes into the development and the upkeep and ensuring that the best and brightest of faculty members are available, I think it’s a value proposition.”

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