A New Ranking Of Online MBA Programs

In a new ranking bound to ignite plenty of controversy, U.S. News & World Report yesterday (Jan. 14) ranked online MBA programs for the very first time. And the winner, according to U.S. News, is quite a shocker: It’s Washington State University which fails to crack any top 100 list of the best full-time MBA programs.

Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, an early pioneer in the field which has had an online MBA program since 1999, finished third. Not on the list at all is the highest ranked business school with an online MBA, the Kenan-Flagler Business School’s MBA@UNC. Yet, U.S. News numerically ranked 148 different online MBA programs.

The absence of what many educators would agree is the best online MBA program is a result of the UNC’s decision not to participate in the ranking. Each ranked school had to complete a lengthly survey from U.S. News filled with data about its program, but UNC officials took issue with the magazine’s ranking and methodology. Some 213 other schools did not share UNC’s qualms and participated.


“The rankings make perfectly good sense if we’re talking about football teams because all football teams try to do the same things,” says Douglas A. Shackelford, associate dean of MBA@UNC. “But the missions, goals and aspirations of these schools and our programs are different. It’s like saying Alabama’s football team is better than Berkeley’s golf team.”

Online MBA programs are still relatively new and most of the early players are generally not among what is commonly known as the best business schools. The more prominent players in business education largely steered clear of online education because it was more often than not the province of for-profit institutions that offerred mediocre MBA programs. Many of the premium branded MBA schools felt that online versions of their MBA degrees would taint their reputations.

Until UNC entered the market two years ago, the only Top 20 player was Indiana. Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School is now accepting applications for an online MBA program that will enter its first class in the fall of 2013 (see Carnegie Mellon Enters The Online MBA Market). Kenan-Flagler, which currently has 323 online MBA students, will graduate its first MBA@UNC class this July. “When we are competing for students to our online program we have not had a discussion with any applicant who has considered any online program other than Indiana,” added Shackelford.


So after the surprising first-place finish by Washington State in Pullman, which charges $29,250 for its online MBA, there’s No. 2 Arizona State University’s Carey School, No. 3 Indiana’s Kelley School, the No. 4 University of Florida’s Hough School, and No. 5 California State University at Fullerton.

Not every dean pooh-poohed the new ranking. “We’re extremely happy to see U.S. News confirm we have one of the world’s best online MBA programs,” says Robert Mittelstaedt, dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, in a statement. “Increasingly, students are looking for the flexibility of an online program, but they don’t want to sacrifice the high quality of a top university. The W. P. Carey School was one of the first highly respected schools to get into the online arena – more than a decade ago — and we offer the same stellar faculty and degree in our online program as we offer in all of our other highly ranked MBA programs.”

In cranking out its ranking, U.S. News collected a wealth of data from the schools, the most comprehensive data set on online MBA degrees ever published, including acceptance rates and GMAT scores, which are rarely made public by the schools. The numbers show that even the highest ranked online programs are not very selective. One top 20 school, the University of North Texas, admitted to accepting 100% of its applicants. The University of Connecticut at Stoors, ranked eighth, and Arkansas State, ranked 11th, both accept 91% of their applicants.

UNC’s acceptance rate, in contrast, ranges between 40% and 55%, depending on the admission cycle. A spokesperson notes that admissions, however, does a lot of pre-application counseling that impacts the number of applications it receives. Nearly one in four of the MBA@UNC students already have graduate degrees and they average 7.7 years of work experience.

Meantime, the average GMAT score for the latest enrolled online class at Central Michigan University, which was ranked sixth, was a meager 495, according to U.S. News. The most selective program, based merely on the percentage of applicants accepted, was at Georgia College and State University, which  told U.S. News it accepted 39% of its applicants. Indiana University reported the highest average incoming GMAT scores for students: a highly respectable 682.

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