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What Makes a Good Online MBA Program?

The QS Distance Online MBA Rankings 2016 are out now!

While, online education can no longer be said to be in its infancy, the idea of high-quality online provision at MBA level is still certainly a new one.


In acknowledgement of both of these things – that online education can now be considered a viable alternative to traditional MBA formats, yet at the same time remaining an unknown quantity to many – we created the QS Distance Online MBA Rankings, in order to shine a light on the quality that most definitely exists in the online MBA space.

How to assess the quality of such programs, however, is the big question. As with any rankings exercise, we need to carefully consider what the most important things are for those who are considering such programs.

The methodology employed for the QS Distance Online MBA Rankings is among the most complex employed by QS in over two decades of helping prospective students identify where quality lies across higher education.

Offering a high-quality MBA online is a challenging thing for business schools, requiring a huge commitment from faculty, management and administrators, and considerable investment in the technologies that makes delivering a high-quality online degree possible. There is no shortage of low-quality online programs out there, so what is that separates the two?

The indicators we use come from two sources. Annual surveys - the QS Global Employer Survey and QS Global Academic Survey – which form the backbone of all our rankings exercises, and data provided to us by the schools themselves. We ask that schools have graduated at least one class before we consider them for inclusion in the ranking.

The total of 18 indicators can be split across six rough areas. You can see them broken down visually here. The final rankings table can be sorted according to any of these six areas.

Employability

Employability, of course, is the central goal of any MBA. Why would you invest 10s, if not 100s of thousands of dollars into an advanced business education degree if it did not improve your prospects in the job market?

This can be a tricky thing to measure specifically in relation to the online MBA space; one of the key reasons that many students opt for the online MBA over a full-time on-campus equivalent is that they want to remain in their jobs while they study – or are even company funded. This does not mean, however, that career advancement is not of interest, be it within their company in the short term, or elsewhere in the longer term.

Our measure of employability, then, is based on the schools from which employers tell us they prefer to hire in general. It is the name of school, we reason, to which employers will look on a candidate’s résumé, before anything else.

This measure is worth 30% of the score.

Student quality

An MBA is only as good as the people on it. One of the criticisms leveled at the low-quality online MBA programs– termed ‘diploma mills’ – that precursor today’s higher-quality provision is that no selectivity was exercised in the admissions process. Sure, you might get lucky and find yourself in a class with highly-motivated individuals who couldn’t access full-time provision…but it’s more likely you would be in a class of people whom to call the business leaders of the future would be something of a stretch.

To measure the quality of the students enrolled on an online MBA program (15% of the total score) we look at four things: the average years of work experience across the class, the number of applicants per place, the average GMAT score of admitted students, and the percentage of those with first degrees. 

Average GMAT scores of 680 and 672 were reported by IE Business Scholl (ranked 2nd overall) and CENTRUM Católica Graduate Business School (14th), respectively, 100% of the class at 19 schools had first degrees, and across all 30 of our ranked schools, students had around 11 years’ work experience on average.

Established in the online MBA marketplace?

Already, we have seen online MBA programs come and go. As mentioned above, it is a big commitment for a school to offer an online MBA program. We therefore award 15% of the total score for schools that have proved they have staying power in this market, and can continue to attract students.

There’s also the small matter of having experience in delivering courses long distance. Those like Warwick Business School and the Open University who have had decades of experience doing this – even before the courses went online – can certainly boast some expertise in the field. 

We also look at accreditation, which tend to be awarded to schools as a whole rather than to specific programs. The more accreditation bodies (AACSB, AMBA, EQUIS and EPAS) that have approved the school, the higher a score they get for this. Nine ranked schools boast the ‘triple crown’ of accreditation from AACSM, AMBA and EQUIS.

Finally, we look at the number of students enrolled – a fairly straightforward indicator of quality here. If you build a decent course, the students will come.

Faculty and teaching

Our faculty and teaching measure is there to ensure that schools are not treating their online MBA programs as an afterthought, but are as fully dedicated to teaching their online MBA as they are their full-time program (if they offer one).

The 15% we award for this indicator is split between three factors. The faculty/student ratio score which forms the basis of many a measure of teaching quality, the proportion of full-time faculty members who teach on the online program as opposed to adjuncts and – this is an important one for online MBA programs, where the often solitary nature of study means that students must be carefully supported to lessen attrition – completion rates.

On average, around two-thirds of faculty members on online MBA programs in our ranking are full-time (the Beacom School of Business at the University of South Dakota is taught exclusively by full-time faculty – it’s a small program, but take a bow nonetheless), with 81% the average completion rate (top marks to the EURO MBA Consortium, with a 99% figure).

Class experience

Study may be largely self-directed on an online MBA program but this, to our mind, only increases the need for a bit of structural discipline in the course in order to give it some real shape. We also believe that much of the experience hinges on how much of the course comprises of group work – after all, working with other people is what management is all about. We reward courses that assess candidates based on group work – as would largely be the case on a full-time program. And finally, sure, these are online programs, but to have small element where candidates are physically in the same room, even for short while, can make a huge difference to the dynamic, even when working together from afar.

We therefore award 15% of the ranking score based around these elements. Two-thirds of our 30 ranked programs have physical meet-up components, half have regular classes at set times, while just under a third mandate attendance to these. Every course in the 2016 rankings has a group work element, which on average counts for 56% of a student’s final grade.

Diversity

The final 10% of a school’s score in our ranking looks at the make-up of the class. As with a full-time program, you’ll learn more from a wider range of people.

We look at the percentage of women enrolled on the course, and the number of nationalities represented. In terms of the latter, no one comes close to Alliance Manchester Business School’s 100+ nationalities, while in terms of the former the overall average of 33% is outdone comfortably by Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University (in the US) at 58%, the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs at 51% and the University of Houston-Victoria at 50%.


And that my friends, is how we rate the quality of an online MBA program. Please do have a look at the rankings!

Written by Mansoor Iqbal

Mansoor is TopMBA.com's former editor and lead research report writer. He is a higher and business education specialist, who has been published in media outlets around the world. He studied English literature at BA and MA level and has a background in consumer journalism.

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