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Nearly 32,000 Students Are Studying For An Online MBA At The 25 Largest Programs

Here’s a little-known fact that will likely surprise you: Nearly 32,000 students are now studying for an online MBA degree at just the 25 largest programs in the U.S. Many of these graduate students are watching pre-recorded lectures on their iPhones and laptops, never meeting their fellow students or faculty in the flesh.

In fact, many are studying at schools that lack accreditation by the most important agency that oversees quality business education in the U.S. and the world, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. And the vast majority of these students never had to take a standardized test, either the GMAT or the GRE, to get into these programs.

Of the 18,734 students in the ten largest online MBA programs, an estimated 95% of the students did not submit a GMAT or GRE to apply for admission. Nearly a third of the 25 largest programs admit 90% to 100% of all the applicants. Yet, all of them are ranked by U.S. News in its 2019 ranking of the best online MBA programs published yesterday (Jan. 15), lending in many cases credibility to schools that are little more than diploma mill factories.

This year’s U.S. News online MBA list puts numerical ranks on a record 285 programs, up from 267 last year. What’s more, the magazine profiles 302 different online MBAs. This year will see at least three new prominent players–the University of Michigan, Southern Methodist University, and UC-Davis’ Graduate School of Management–enter the increasingly crowded and commoditized market.

Few would be able to guess the five schools with the largest online MBA enrollments. They are Liberty University in Virginia, with nearly 4,000 students; Nova Southeastern University in Florida, with 2,387; Colorado Technical University in Colorado Springs, with 2,341 students, Saint Leo University in Florida with 1,913 students, and American InterContinental University in Illinois, with 1,899 students. Some 11 programs in all reported having more than 1,000 currently enrolled students studying for their MBAs online.


If anything, the list of the largest players goes to show that one online MBA program is hardly equal to another. Consider the school with the largest single enrollment of long-distance MBA students: Liberty University. Founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. in Lynchburg, Va., and now run by his son since 2007, Liberty has become the second-largest provider of online education in the U.S. after only the University of Phoenix, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Christian university’s MBA program has no live classes, no in-residence sessions, no global immersions, and no experiential learning projects with companies. Students are graded by adjunct teachers who make less than $2,100 per course, according to a recent article in The New York Times. But you can get an MBA from Liberty for as little as $20,340 if you go full-time and take only a dozen, eight-week-long courses without a concentration. Or you could pay as much as $30,969, if you attend part-time and sign up for a concentration that adds three courses to your degree. Discounts are available to military veterans.

In common with several of the largest programs, it’s nearly impossible to even find out how much an MBA costs at Liberty by visiting its website. Instead, you have to call one of the school’s “enrollment agents” and wait in a long line of held calls to speak to a person. While you are waiting, you’ll hear a series of promotional messages that range from a claim that its tuition is in the bottom third for top online schools or how Liberty is favorably ranked by BestColleges.com, a website that publishes fake rankings with no cited methodologies to generate sales leads for third-tier schools.

According to the Times account, students are “especially scornful of the online discussion boards” that “tend to be a rote exercise, with students making only their requisite one post and two comments per week, generating no substantive discussion…Recently, a satirical campus newspaper, The Flaming Bugle, ran an Onion-style article with the headline ‘Cat Playing on Keyboard Inadvertently Earns ‘A’ for Discussion Board Post.’”

Liberty reported a suspiciously low acceptance rate to U.S. News for its online program: 32%. That compares with an admit rate of 54% for Carnegie Mellon’s blended online option, the University of Southern California’s 53%, UNC at Chapel Hill’s 60%, and Indiana Kelley’s 76%, even though Liberty reported that a mere 1% of its latest entrants submitted a GMAT score to get into the school.

Of course, there are several quality players among the top 25, too. They include the two schools whose online MBA programs are ranked first in U.S. News’ 2019 ranking, Indiana University’s Kelley Direct program and Kenan-Flagler’s MBA@UNC offering. Kelley’s total enrollment is now 934, up from 703 last year. UNC’s reported enrollment is just a smidge below Kelley’s at 905.

So how does the Liberty MBA experience compare with a quality offering? Just take a look at Indiana University’s Kelley Direct program founded in 1999. Instead of 12 classes, there are 18 covering 51 credits. There are live classes every week, plus two in-residence ‘Connect Weeks’ on campus where teams of students work on consulting assignments for companies. There are online clubs around student interests. And there’s also a menu of global and domestic immersions. Sure, it costs more at $67,830, but it’s also accredited by the AACSB and taught by professors who teach in the school’s full-time MBA program.

And there are several AACSB-accredited programs that are under $20,000 a pop. The least expensive online MBA with accreditation that matters is West Texas A&M University’s offering at $16,035, followed by Texas A&M-Commerce with a price tag of $18,510, and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell for $19.650.

Bottom line: If you’re interested in an online MBA program, make sure you take one from a university that is delivering a quality experience worth taking.


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