PROFILE OF A MARSHALL ONLINE MBA CANDIDATE
When USC Marshall was building its online MBA program, the school did more than hold focus groups with corporations. It also profiled prospective students, Sandra Chrystal says. “One of our marketing professors who actually specializes in doing profiles sat down and did a couple profiles of what we thought the students would be like — what their work experience would be like, where they were coming from, and what they would want,” she tells Poets&Quants. “We’ve really only had four cohorts, so this not a longitudinal data study. But pretty much he was on target, and that is to say that we said students had to have five years experience and what’s happened is they’re averaging closer to nine years.”
Who are they? “We’re getting a lot of people who are innovators,” Chrystal says. “We’re getting a lot of people who are CFOs, CEOs, poepleho have sold their business and are coming back to get an MBA because it was something they didn’t have time to get while they were doing whatever it was that they were doing. So it’s a very different audience — a very different student body than some other MBAs. Certainly different than our residential programs.”
Yes and no. In some ways, USC’s residential MBA program and online program are similar: cost, for example. To get an MBA by attending Marshall, one must pay $102,103, or about $10,000 more than online students. The male-to-female ratio is similar in person (70-30) and online (64-36), as is undergrad GPA (3.2 residential, 3.3 online). But in other ways, the experiences are quite different, as Chrystal points out: The residential program has a 31.6% acceptance rate; the online program is 46%. The average GMAT score for Marshall’s residential MBAs is 690; online, 630.
“And that’s good, because what we wanted to do was provide a quality education to students who didn’t want or couldn’t have the opportunity to take two years to come to the residential program, or even the three years to do a part-time program,” Chrystal says. “It was a whole new audience. The majority of the students — off the top of my head I’ll say 98% of them — are students that when I look at their GMATs and you can see where they’ve applied, they’re applying to other online programs. And I know who they are applying to: Kelley, Kenan-Flagler, Carnegie Mellon. So I know we’re right up there with where they’re applying.”
THE COURSES AND THE PLAN
USC’s program is so new, it wasn’t even ranked last year. Its first graduating class will be this year. But word has gotten out, and satisfaction rates are high, propelling the program into the U.S. News top 15. Cost has not mitigated the program’s rise, in part, Chrystal says, because “they know the price when they’re coming in. But these are people who have decided that that’s an investment that they want to make, for whatever different reasons they have. That’s an investment they want to make, and the whole emphasis has been on quality students, quality faculty, quality curriculum.”
The Marshall online MBA consists of five cross-disciplinary courses, Fundamentals of Business, Opportunity Recognition and Implementation, Managing Inside the Firm, Managing Outside the Firm, and Business Environment & Leadership, as well as a 3-credit prerequisite, Role of the Manager. All are taught by “award-winning, top-notch faculty,” Chrystal says, with two to four professors teaching each of the five courses. The courses are offered on a semester schedule, with the fall semester beginning in August and running to late December 22, the spring beginning in January and extending to late April, and the summer beginning in May and going until August.
The program runs its course, so to speak, in five semesters, Chrystal says, or about a year and a half. The students who came in as the first Marshall online cohort in August 2015 will be graduating this spring.
RICHER COMMUNICATIONS, MODELED BY ESTABLISHED PROGRAMS
For all its top-notch faculty and leading-edge curriculum, the caliber of student who pursues a Marshall MBA won’t tolerate “a talking head talking into the webcam,” Chrystal says. And so you get the school’s investment in the production side, which has resulted in four (unexpected) awards — two Tellys, a Davey, and another from the Online Learning Consortium.
“It is top-notch production,” Chrystal says. “Online learning is different than residential learning. And we need to start assessing programs knowing that — not looking at them as if they were a residential program just on a different delivery platform. Because it isn’t.
“We’ve got animated digital backgrounds on these courses for the asynchronous materials,” she continues. “We’ve got a richer communication channel called Zoom that we use twice a week for something we call Marshall Talk, which is basically a screen where all of the students are seen on the screen at the same time as the faculty — so we get to watch the facial expressions just as I would watch the first row of my class. I can see if they don’t get what I’m saying or don’t get what’s in the discussion or they’re annoyed with Susan who made a comment over here. It’s an animated discussion — a very 21st-century kind of learning experience.”
Indiana Kelley and UNC Kenan-Flagler were models for Marshall’s program, to a degree, Chrystal says. “I went out to Kelley, and we had many conversations. We emailed back and forth with both of them.”
MODEST BEGINNINGS, POSITIVE RESULTS
But she also credits her program’s modest initial ambitions.
“We didn’t start with an MBA,” she says. “When Dean (James) Ellis decided to have online learning be a part of the Marshall program, we talked about it and he really gave me one directive: Create a quality program. He didn’t give me a budget, he didn’t say what I had to start with, he just said, ‘Create a quality program. It’s got to live up to the Marshall standard.'” So Chrystal and her team brought in seven faculty members to create nine asynchronous courses, fundamentals of business courses that are not graduate courses but that led to the formation of the production team. Soon they were able to craft an online Master in Business Taxation. “We were building those programs and the teams learned to work together, to make the deadlines, to make quality programming,” Chrystal says. It took three years of growth and assessments before they were ready to launch the MBA.
“We worked with over 30 faculty creating all those courses. We knew we couldn’t make any mistakes. But we also knew we couldn’t listen to people say, ‘That didn’t work out and therefore Marshall is going to be affected negatively on every level.’ It’s not. In fact, it’s going to affect everything in a very positive way. And we’re showing that already.”
(See the following pages for the top 100 U.S. News online MBA programs as ranked by total cost, from most expensive to cheapest.)