MBA Programs

Employers Warm Up to Online MBAs


Employers Warm Up to Online MBAs

Photograph by Elynn Larsen/Gallery Stock

Online MBA programs may be losing some of the stigma they have in the marketplace, as more employers say they are increasingly open to hiring graduates of these programs, according to a study published in this summer’s Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration.

The authors of the study, Jeffrey Bailey of Walden University and Larry Flegle of the American Public University System, interviewed 20 hiring managers from some of the leading companies in Wisconsin, including those in the health-care, financial, and insurance industries. Half of the employers surveyed said that the format the degree was earned in, whether online or in a traditional MBA classroom, would not be a significant factor in their decision to hire or promote a job candidate.

The vast majority also said that it would not make a difference if a potential hire had earned a degree from the University of Wisconsin’s Consortium Online MBA program or one of the public university system’s traditional full-time MBA  programs, says Bailey, who did the survey as his dissertation while a management PhD student at Walden University, which offers online degrees. Their responses are a sign that the “acceptance of online degrees has improved,” Bailey says.

“One person I interviewed made the comment that if I had asked five years ago, the answer would be different,” he says. “Things are changing because more people [who] have gone through online programs are out working in the business world and doing well, which gives the degree more credibility.”

Another surprising finding? All 20 of the employers interviewed said it did not matter to them whether a job candidate had earned his or her online MBA from a for-profit educational institution or a not-for-profit school, as long as the degree program was properly accredited.

Despite the warmer reception by employers toward online MBA graduates, alumni of these programs still face significant hurdles when they apply for jobs. For example, some employers believe that online MBA programs are not as high quality, rigorous, or competitive as regular full-time programs.

About half the employers surveyed said they still have reservations about the quality of the classroom experience in an online MBA program, favoring the more traditional brick-and-mortar programs. For example, the importance of face-to-face student interactions in the classroom, on teams, and in group projects was cited six times by this group as a value-adding factor for a traditional MBA, the study found. Others said they had little experience with online MBA job candidates and did not believe online MBA students were as serious about their careers as those in full-time MBA programs.

“You do have some people who still question how well you can develop socialization skills to work with other people if you are getting the degree online,” Bailey says. “One person I interviewed said, ‘How do I know if someone who spent the last two or three years getting their MBA in pajamas can come into the office?’ That is maybe a sarcastic type of comment, but that is what some people still think.”

Recruiters with those prejudices are becoming less prevalent as more employers become open-minded about prospective job candidates with online MBA degrees. Ann Nowak, director of recruiting for professional programs at Liberty Mutual Insurance, a property and casualty insurer owned by its policy holders, says that the company hired one graduate from an online MBA program last year and recently hired another one who’ll be coming on board this year.

Nowak recruits students from the top 50 MBA programs but says she will occasionally consider students from online MBA programs, provided they have excellent grades and a strong job history. She prefers candidates who come from schools where the online core curriculum is closely aligned to the school’s full-time MBA program and a short residency is required, such as the online MBA program dubbed MBA@UNC at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“Is it out of the question that I would hire someone from an online degree program? No, there is a good possibility that I would, but the candidate’s experience and academic record would have to be really rich for that person to get hired,” she says. “They’d have to really bowl me over when they interview with me.”

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Damast is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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