An unlikely winner claimed the top spot in U.S. News & World Report‘s 2016 ranking of the best online MBA programs published today (Jan. 12). Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia, which had been in a three-way tie for first last year, broke ahead of the pack, pushing Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business in second place and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flager Business School in third.
For Temple, whose full-time MBA program is tied for 41st place with the University of Maryland by U.S. News, it’s a big victory–likely to give the school a bit more pricing power in the market. Temple’s online degree costs $59,760, roughly the same as the $60,750 in-state tuition for its full-time, on-campus program and about $25,000 cheaper than the sticker price on the full-time program for out-of-staters.
Temple, of course, wasn’t the only big winner in the survey. The online MBA program at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater rose an improbable 76 places from last year to finish at a rank of 27th best in the U.S., from 103 in 2015. But there were roller-coaster rides for a good number of programs. The State University of New York at Oswego saw its online offering jump 37 places to finish 20th versus 57 last year, while the University of North Texas had a 32-place rise to finish 15th, from a rank of 47 in 2015.
A METHODOLOGY BASED ENTIRELY ON A SURVEY TO BUSINESS SCHOOLS
Obviously, leaps of that magnitude say less about the quality of a school’s program than they do about the quality of a ranking’s methodology. U.S. News ranks online programs on five key criteria: student engagement (28%), admissions selectivity (25%), peer reputation (25%), faculty credentials and training (11%), and student services and technology (11%). On the face of it, the metrics aren’t all that unreasonable. But all of these factors are measured on the basis of a school’s answers to a U.S. News questionnaire, and the way they are calculated may mean little to an applicant or student.
Among the most important metrics in student engagement is whether a program is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, hardly a legitimate measure of “student engagement.” U.S. News does not survey students so it cannot possibly gauge actual engagement by program participants. Moreover, schools with low class sizes–which may simply mean a school isn’t attracting many applicants or students–are deemed better at student engagement by U.S. News.
U.S. News‘ methodology, moreover, gives a school no credit for in-residence sessions that allow for deeper bonding among classmates, faculty and staff. In fact, the magazine goes out of its way to say that “coming to campus for orientation, testing or academic support services do not exclude a program from being classified as an online master’s in business administration degree program.” Perhaps even worse, it gives short shrift to the importance of technology in the delivery of a program, even though technology weighs heavily in online degree programs. This ranking is also limited to U.S. schools at a time when many European schools, including IE Business School in Spain, boast very solid online options.
COSTS FOR ONLINE DEGREES VARY SIGNIFICANTLY
Residencies, however, add tremendous value to online offerings, increasing student interaction and learning and creating more enduring relationships post-graduation. At Indiana, online MBA students spend two full weeks on campus. At UNC, there are quarterly week-end immersions during the 18-to-36 months it takes to complete the degree. And at Carnegie Mellon, online students get together six weekends a a program that lasts a full 32 months. In contrast, Temple allows students to get its online MBA in as little as 20 months.
Like other top programs, though, Temple’s online MBA offering features the same courses from the same professors in its traditional on-campus program. It begins with a week-long residency in which students complete a leadership development course. The program then has students go through one course at a time over each four-week period, providing two area of possible concentration, marketing management or human resources management.
Costs on these programs vary significantly and are obviously more if a school is using the same teachers in the online program that teach in the full-time, on-campus program and if there are residencies with overnight stays and meals included. UNC nows prices its MBA@UNC online offering at $99,675. The KelleyDirect program from Indiana University costs $66,300. Carnegie Mellon’s option has the highest price tag: $118,080.