The Most Popular Online MBA Programs

by Marc Ethier on

Kenan-Flagler is the only other business school besides Isenberg in the U.S. News top 100 to have more than 1,000 students enrolled in its online MBA program

Doug Shackelford doesn’t have a lot of faith in how business school rankings are done, but he has no problem with the way his school was treated in the 2017 U.S. News ranking of online MBA programs. That’s because even though UNC Kenan-Flagler dropped one spot in the latest ranking, it still landed at No. 4, beneath only Temple University’s Fox School of Business, Carnegie Mellon Tepper, and Indiana Kelley.

Another piece of good news emerged from the new ranking, at least from Shackelford’s point of view: Based on enrollment, Kenan-Flagler, with 1,047 students, is second in popularity only to UMass Isenberg among the U.S. News top 100. Shackelford, Kenan-Flagler’s dean and Meade H. Willis distinguished professor of taxation, says his school has always set itself apart with unflinching dedication to the highest standards. “From the very beginning our approach was, we want to be the gold standard in online education among MBA programs,” he says. “We don’t want to cut any corners. We adopted what we call the ‘No Compromise’ policy, which meant we wouldn’t compromise on the admissions standards, on the quality of the faculty, on the quality of the courses.”

Kenan-Flagler’s online courses have no hard cap for participants, so the program “can grow as large as we wish it to be,” Shackelford tells Poets&Quants. But echoing Isenberg’s John Wells, he adds that the main problem is finding “top-flight faculty” to handle program offerings. “At a point which we no longer can find faculty of the same caliber that we have in all our other programs, that’s when we would no longer be admitting students. To date, that constraint hasn’t kicked in.”

OPERATING ON FAITH

Kenan-Flagler’s Doug Shackelford

Kenan-Flagler is among the majority of schools in having launched its online program in the last 10 years, in 2011-2012 to be exact. The school is one of the more exclusive schools with a 45% acceptance rate to its online program; its average GMAT score of 670 is the highest of all schools in the top 100 (only 10 other schools had average scores of 600 or more). But cost is where Kenan-Flagler sets itself apart from the pack: At $1,585 per credit hour — the same rate whether a student is full- or part-time, in-state or out — an online MBA from the school sets one back $104,610, second-most among all ranked schools.

When it launched just five and a half years ago, Kenan-Flagler’s online MBA had just 19 students. A year later, that number rose to 32; another year went by and it grew only to 38. So it was slow going, Shackelford says, and there was no guarantee of success.

“It took a long time before I didn’t know every student’s name the first day the classes started,” he says. “Whenever there was any question, ‘Do we spend the money?’ — we spent the money, although it meant that there were some times there early on when we were really operating on faith. There was a little bit of, ‘If we build it, they will come,’ but there wasn’t a lot of evidence that they actually would come.”

‘A POOR MAN’S VERSION OF “60 MINUTES”‘

They came. After 20% growth quarter to quarter for the first three years, suddenly things took off with a 40% increase. The growth rate has continued into the current school year, Shackelford says.

“The thinking was, if we indeed established ourselves as sort of the Cadillac in terms of reputation, then it would pay off in the long run, and I think that’s what we’ve observed,” he says, noting that a huge amount of the school’s success in drawing students comes not from its marketing efforts but from word-of-mouth. “I tell people, our program operates just like good restaurants operate. I go and eat at a place because somebody said, ‘Hey, there’s this restaurant you ought to try out, you’d like it.’ I don’t ever go because there’s an advertisement on TV that says ‘Great Italian food.'”

So what makes Kenan-Flagler the “Cadillac” of online MBA programs? Production values. As Shackelford explains, the school doesn’t just put a camera in the back of a room and tell a professor to go about his class as he would in a face-to-face setting. Kenan-Flagler employs three cameras and “like a TV production crew” of eight people, he says. “I tell people it’s like a poor man’s version of ’60 Minutes.’ It’s not a talking head. It’s much more documentary-style. If you can think of the most advanced technology and communications, that’s the kind of things we’re doing.” The students deserve no less, says Shackelford, who teaches a taxation course online. “To ask somebody to devote two and a half hours to study tax stuff — and with all the competing things out there these days that you can put on your laptop — it’s got to be really good.”

RACING TO STAY AHEAD

Also really good: Kenan-Flagler’s community-building efforts. Among other elements, at the end of every quarter the school summons all its online students to a location “somewhere in the world,” Shackelford says — twice in the U.S., twice internationally. This March that somewhere will be Johannesburg, South Africa. Students will meet from Thursday night to late Sunday afternoon to participate in a case competition and other “intense bonding experiences” that “folks just haven’t figured out to do electronically” — the sorts of things that grow and strengthen a community, Shackelford says, which is one explanation for the school’s elevation into the upper echelon of online programs. “You’re not compromising anything when you do the online program with us,” he says.

Students have responded. But can the program continue its remarkable rate of growth? “I don’t think we can maintain 40%-plus growth for long, but I think it’s some of the snowballing effect of word-of-mouth,” Shackelford says.

He mentions one more factor that boosts Kenan-Flagler’s online MBA program, as it does for every program: “We are helped every day because online education is not as negatively perceived as it was when we started this thing in 2011. Harvard, MIT, some of the best brand names in education have extensive online programs now, and even if they’re not MBA programs and even if they’re doing it very differently from what we’re doing, if you speak to a student who has the ability to go to any MBA program in the world and say, ‘Have you considered our online program?’ they don’t look at you like, ‘You’ve got to be crazy.’ They now say, ‘Yeah, I should look into that.’

“As a dean, my job is to worry and be nervous,” Shackelford continues. “My worry is someone like Poets&Quants will have an article this afternoon that will say ‘School XYZ is coming out with an online program’ and while we have a Cadillac, they’re coming out with a Lexus. So it might be great right now, but you never know. So we’re trying to race to stay ahead, but I’m aware that what we’re doing right now, five years from now people will look back and say, ‘That’s pretty bad.’ We have to try to constantly stay in front.”

See next pages for the top 100 U.S. News-ranked online MBA programs listed by enrollment, but also including average age and percentages of female students, international students, and minority students.

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